Scott Johnson is a Founder and the Design Partner of Johnson Fain, an international architectural practice based in Los Angeles. He was a past director of the Master of Architecture Programs at the University of Southern California School of Architecture, a recipient of the Gold Medal from the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the author on a number of books on architecture. His work includes the American Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Oklahoma and the redesign of the former Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. Johnson was a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome in 2018 and divides his time between Los Angeles, New York and his studio in Ojai, California.
"IT’S ART IF I SAY IT’S ART. OTHERWISE IT’S NOT."
This body of work chronicles a series of ongoing investigations in mixed-media art which formulate a dialectic between a universe of rationalized form and one of intuition. This dialectic metaphorically stands in for a range of interplays, among them, geometric form as a metaphor for received knowledge versus free form as a metaphor for invention/spontaneity, familiar elements from our media-scape versus the unfamiliar, praxis versus projection, gravity versus levitation and so on. The art-making process of layering various materials allows for the creation of depth and dimension, a curation which both buries certain meanings while allowing others to emerge.
PALIMPSEST PROJECT / ROME
In December 2017, I was invited to be a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome for the following month of March. I had proposed making a series of mixed-media works I called PALIMPSEST PROJECT/ROME. My prior artwork had not been about architecture, cities or physical space per se and relied on a layering of images and paint on large wood pallets. This technique allowed me to curate media and, with the use of paint and other materials, create layers of content, some explicit, some only partially revealed beneath subsequent layers.
These paintings made prior to my Academy visit always seemed to formulate a dialectic between two worlds: one of rationalized form and one of intuition. For me, this dialectic metaphorically stood in for a range of interplays, among them, geometric form as a metaphor for received knowledge versus free form as a metaphor for invention/spontaneity, praxis versus projection, gravity versus levitation and so on.
Because I had two months to prepare for the work to be done in Rome and uncertain of what resources would be available there, I planned a major piece which would be nine feet square made up of nine individual squares each three feet by three feet. Due to the challenges of transporting rigid wood panels, I made the decision to use transparent mylar which could be rolled in a tube, brought to Rome, worked upon, re-rolled and brought back to Los Angeles to be mounted and framed. Prior to my departure, I arranged to have digitally altered aerial photography of the city printed on the mylar and treated to receive paint. My plan was to use multiple layers of transparent mylar to which I would affix content visible on the surface of, and below, the top layer of film.
As I altered my normal methods to anticipate the Rome project, I was aware that there was a likeness in my methods of layering and the fact that Rome as a city is nothing if not a series of historical layers, some visible at the surface, some through fragmentary vestiges left in buildings and open space patterns and some only visible through excavation. Once in my studio in Rome, the actual artwork resulted in three tranches of investigation. The most premeditated one, which I had planned on producing, turned out to be the most literal, as I had prepared for two months, identified means and methods and, while uncertain of specific outcomes, had identified a general work plan. As it happened, the work proceeded quickly in Rome and I discovered there would be additional time and materials to produce three more projects. As time passed and I continued to paint, each additional project (a triptych, a diptych and a series of collages) became more abstract than the prior one and the body of work ultimately represents, among other things, a visual migration from a work of referential physicality to ones of increasing conceptuality.
ROMA, LA CITTÀ COME LA NATURA (ROME, THE CITY AS NATURE) was the name given to the first of the artworks. NATURE is present in the bold east/west lines which trace the trajectory of the sun, the clusters of media fragments which outline the pastoral spaces in the city and the serpentine line of the Tiber wandering through the plan from north to south. THE HISTORIC CITY is present in the traces of city streets and opportunistic building sites created over time. Archaic, meandering paths as well as bold interventions by government and the Papacy stand out in the city plan. THE FUTURE, finally, is foreshadowed in the multi-colored segmentation of the plan and the nodal patterns of white paint which suggest emerging, non-physical information networks.
ROMA, IL SOGNO (ROME, THE DREAM) is a triptych which further deconstructs the literal city. Physical elements, streets and plan features are reduced to fragments, each of the three panels evoking a different visual “dream” of Rome.
ROMA, RIDOTTA (ROME, REDUCED) is a diptych which represents the most reductive and abstract images of the city, each painting iconic and digestible as a whole, the two suggesting subtle variety within a kit-of-parts system of infinite possibility.
ROMA, LE MINIATURE (ROME, THE MINIATURES) are a series of sixteen studies which, except for the faintest of physical traces, address the idea of the city as metaphor, media and memory. Personalized rather than physical presence offers a counterpoint to both the specific properties of the historic city and the universalizing trends acting upon it. Each vision is anecdotal and unique.