Chris Johanson

at Vedanta, through February 10

at Bodybuilder and Sportsman, through February 17

Sam Prekop

at Jan Cicero, through February 17

By Fred Camper

Chris Johanson, 32, is “a product of the San Francisco skateboard-and-graffiti art scene,” as New York Times critic Roberta Smith describes him. Johanson still skateboards (though he told me, “I generally try not to have skateboarding be a part of my art trip–I don’t identify with that culture”), and he’s edited zines and played in a rock band. Largely untrained as an artist, he created some of the works in his first Chicago shows–46 untitled pieces (identified below by checklist number) at Vedanta and 29 more, often titled, at Bodybuilder and Sportsman–on wood and paper he scavenged here. Though most of his work is rough and unrefined, he gives it an assertive energy: Smith calls his art “cheerfully abject” with an “optimistic sweetness.”

Of course a graffiti-art outsider who produces works with raw power isn’t exactly new; what distinguishes Johanson’s pieces is that they evince ideas. On the simplest level, he tweaks conformism, mass manufacture, and capitalism. Celebrating the ordinary, he shows a healthy antiauthoritarianism. But Johanson is too philosophical to adopt the vulgar us-versus-them mentality of some leftists: in his view we’re all part of the problem, including artists.

Some pieces argue that artists are nothing special–that they’re not “the antennae of the race,” as Ezra Pound put it. In number 46, brightly colored curved lines trace the approximate shape of a head and shoulders. The artist’s instructions, written beside the painting, suggest that the viewer take it off the wall and look at its back. There a hand-printed text tells the viewer that this is a picture of “anybodies energy that anybody could paint” and invites him to “copy the basic idea.” For Johanson, transcendence is inseparable from the waste materials he uses and his equalizing view of artists. Number 14, rendered on an especially scruffy piece of brown scrap paper, shows a stairway any of us could have drawn.

The African-American figure in number 17 is labeled “Average Person” and has a cloud of colored smears around his head. A printed text near one edge tells us that the colors represent different “moods, energies, types of thoughts, memories.” Unlike mainstream abstractionists from Kandinsky and Malevich to Rothko and Newman, for whom carefully chosen colors and shapes can produce profound revelations, Johanson sees no preternatural power in his smears. Our interior lives are not unique, he seems to say, and can be represented by quickly applied daubs of color.

Affirming our animal nature, Johanson pokes fun at our wish to be more than physical bodies. A number of pieces suggest we’re drowning in feces–or drowning the world in our shit. Progressive Living shows a rainbow of parallel colored stripes pouring into a giant funnel; something thick and brown flows out the bottom. Number 38, a room-sized installation, repeats that image in a wall drawing, but here the brown stream diverges from the wall in thin bands of brown wood leading to human figures painted on wood. They have their backs to the wall, so we don’t know whether their shit is being transformed into a rainbow or not. It could be that the waste products of civilization are overwhelming us all.

Just as Johanson knows that excrement both affirms our nature and signals a bleak future, so he sees the negative side of viewing people too reductively. Number 23 shows a businessman with a target on his back; on top is written “people always weigh other people.” In Protest, a group of people carry signs opposing all change (“No more change ever!”). One suspects Johanson is sympathetic, since change has long been the mantra of our culture, but a lone observer to the left exclaims that the protest is “ridiculous,” a view it’s hard not to share. Part of Johanson’s point is that all human opinions–like moods, facial expressions, and artists’ marks–are arbitrary choices, none necessarily better than any other. Symbols consists of 11 simple line drawings in two rows, juxtaposing a Hebrew star with the yin-yang emblem and a peace symbol with a hand that’s giving the finger. The clownlike faces in number 24–one of several portrait grids–vary slightly, but the differences seem insignificant, mere accidents or random choices on the artist’s part.

Yet Johanson does affirm one value, and rather strongly: the primal power of nature. A video that’s part of the installation Castle suggests that breaking down the natural world into pieces is a necessary prelude to its possession and disfigurement, symbolized in the final sequence by the arrival of a “conquistador” who drinks from a jug while claiming “this…new land…for the Queen.” Before that, a long take of moving waves both stands for the conquistador’s ocean voyage and suggests an undivided virgin space; next we see chopped-up pans of a coastal landscape. Number 37–the one piece that seems utterly without irony–also carries an unmistakable message: this diptych renders a tropical forest and a buffalo in some detail and has a text on the side contrasting “animal and plant world harmony” with “humans…figuring out how to get more more more.”

The mood of quiet restraint marking Sam Prekop’s 15 small abstract paintings at Jan Cicero couldn’t be more different from the tone of Johanson’s work. Similar in size and palette, Prekop’s pieces are rendered mostly in shades of cream and gray, and their meaning is conveyed through their painterly subtlety. A 36-year-old Chicagoan who received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute in 1987, Prekop resembles Johanson in that both are musicians: Prekop sings in and writes lyrics for the postrock band the Sea and Cake.

Most of these paintings suggest cityscapes, with large empty areas at the top and clusters of small, mostly rectangular shapes at the bottom. Critic John Brunetti notes that Prekop’s palette captures the “distinctive atmospheric conditions of changing Midwestern winter light”–and certainly Chicagoans know that in winter one must develop an appreciation for subtle shades of gray. Where Johanson makes even highly visible differences seem relatively unimportant, Prekop celebrates the smallest distinctions.

Yet these two also share an ethos common among many of the best younger artists today, rejecting the idea that the world is ordered or unified by principles that an artist might hope to uncover. Humans are neither gods nor divine messengers, and they cannot and should not presume to grasp or convey any absolutes. Instead of considering art as a form of revelation, Prekop and Johanson see it as a kind of play.

The rectangles in The Mirror look fairly regular at first glance but are filled with variations. Most have black outlines open on one side, but some aren’t outlined at all. All are rendered in slight variants of cream or gray. Most look flat, but a few diagonals suggest open-sided three-dimensional boxes. Some have ovals at their centers. These apparently insignificant variations ultimately seem as playful and arbitrary as the varying facial expressions in Johanson’s portrait grids. The ovals are somewhat cartoonish, their slightly goofy look suggesting nothing so strong as self-parody but perhaps simple fun. These shapes may be in part about the city, but they’re also about the joys of making marks.

It would be hard to read our cityscapes today as expressing a single ethos. There’s no dominant architectural style, and postmodern buildings consume and recycle earlier styles in a way that strips them of their original meaning. Prekop’s rejection of revelatory painting is true to our increasingly diverse culture–but like Johanson, he doesn’t descend into total relativism either. His sensitively painted empty spaces are crucial: Prekop’s fields have a subtle, pulsating delicacy inspired in part, he told me, by old Italian frescoes–both by their colors and by the effects of decay. Celebrating an unfilled ground, Prekop gives his work a spiritual dimension that invites comparison with older art. In The Cellar, the little boxes end before either side of the painting, giving the impression of a limited human presence–of a city on an island surrounded by fog or prairie.

Empty space seems to be taking over some of Prekop’s paintings. The rectangles in Mountain Time are mostly three-sided outlines open at the bottom, a bit like gravestones. But there aren’t many of them, and most are obscured by a hazy band of gray resembling low-lying mist in a cemetery. In Untitled #22, the rectangles grow fainter the higher up they are, as if they were buildings receding into the distance. One might identify Prekop’s pictures with the atmospheric sensibilities of impressionism if it weren’t for the fact that his large empty spaces create an ecological context for his Euclidean markings: Prekop renders human constructions not as space-filling absolutes but as points on a much larger unmapped or unplowed field.

Prekop’s seven photographs support this ecological interpretation. Prekop, who’s relatively new to photography, doesn’t make his own prints, so these are relatively straight, unmanipulated images. St. Helens, Oregon shows a parked car facing the Columbia River but separated from it by a tall barbed-wire fence. There are no barriers to nature in San Luis Obispo, which shows a tiny figure dwarfed by a dark forest, recalling Hudson River school landscape paintings; what wilderness is left, Prekop seems to say, remains powerful, almost overwhelming. And Houston, Texas–showing a single small white rectangle, apparently the back of a sign, in the middle of a green lawn–is a wonderful instance of an artist finding his forms in the world. Asked about the picture, Prekop says, “I have a feeling that I didn’t look at the other side–it’s probably a Keep Off the Grass sign, and I probably didn’t want to know I was breaking the rules.” I suspect he also didn’t want to clutter his vision with any more human markings.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sam Prekop, Chris Johanson.