Teddy Johnson's Last Mountain and David Campbell's Running were early selections for the Transitory Identifications exhibition. The Last Mountain, with its desolate, stoic characters with mask-like faces, and Running, depicting a faceless man being chased by buffaloes across the plane of the image, resembled film stills. Upon first viewing Running, do you identify more with the charging buffalo or the fleeing man? Perceptions change depending on various factors including concentration and the power of suggestion. What mysteries are hidden and revealed in the faces and distorted body language of the mountaintop figures in Johnson's Last Mountain? The process of identification reflects our own identities, false selves, egos, fears, and insecurities.
John Lee Matney
Teddy Johnson interviews David Campbell:
TJ: What artists have inspired you and what else has influenced your practice?"
DC: More and more I realize what it means to respond to my perception, or what informs my perception. The main thrust for my work must come from an initial visual excitement. Hopefully after that, the painting takes over. Knowing when and how to let my mind's eye dictate the direction of my work is what's at stake. My influence ultimately boils down to a love of looking.
Artists & influences: Edwin Dickinson, Goya, Gwen John, Walter Sickert, Alfred Hitchcock, Maurice Ravel, Looney Tunes, dreams, memories from my childhood, Stanley Kubrick, Lucian Freud, Jack Levine, David Fertig, Sidney Nolan, nature, sun light, spirituality, Velasquez, El Greco, and David Park.
TJ: I really enjoy the theatricality of your recent work and notice quite a change in subject matter from when I first became familiar with it 6 or 7 years ago. Your older work appears to be a deep homage to the traditions of still life, but now seems to increasingly include a kind of humor and theater. Is this a natural progression or an intentional departure from your past works?
DC: In grad school I had done three large paintings where I tried to conjure up some sort of dreamlike/cinematic image from an assemblage of different instances and spaces. I think that is when I became aware of how much the theatrical narrative was important to me. During and right after grad school, painting from the still life was more about control and slowing down. It was certainly in line with a more traditional lineage. At the moment, I'm more excited about the idea of allowing myself to lose control and let something from the outside guide the painting's narrative.
It would be disingenuous of me to say that Looney Tunes has not been a major force in developing my sense of humor.
TJ: Your paintings in the 5th anniversary show have a dreamlike quality, but I understand they are painted largely from observation. Do these compositions start in your minds eye, looking, or both?
DC: Eight years ago I tried painting from a memory of a dream I had, and I felt incredibly bound. I have the utmost respect for painters that were able to begin a painting predominately from their imagination, e.g. Goya, El Greco, Ensor, etc.. For me, the inspiration must begin with the act of looking. Only after that is when I feel I have the freedom to invent and diverge. These recent paintings all involve piecing together through the act of looking. Sometimes these "pieces" come from previous paintings and observations. I like the idea of using a compilation of images from prior work, much like how a cook adds ingredients from other dishes.
TJ: You are associated with a group called the"Perceptual Painters." How would you describe the group? What role does this play in your work?
DC: The group is comprised of painters that love responding from their sight. But it's not about looking for the sake of copying or depicting. It's about taking in and translating what we are experiencing with our vision. Using our perception is not about being dogmatic, instead it's about joy, and true joy comes from discovering mystery. Exercising our perception gives us that. I think it's safe for me to say that everyone in our collective loves the idea of color, value and forms occurring to them.
TJ: You recently relocated from Philadelphia to Williamsburg, has the change in environment found its way into your work?
DC: My wife and I have been very fortunate to have found a home very quickly since we've moved here. The back of our property has a studio shed that has given me plenty of room to create the type of space I'm interested in. I'm not sure what dictates the changes on my work more, environment or just getting older.
David Campbell interviews Teddy Johnson:
DC: What artists have inspired you and what else has influenced your practice?"
TJ: Increasingly, painting is a way for me to center myself between present, past, and where things are going. Sometimes it’s a way to imagine, construct, and recollect. Other times, it is a way to process systems and respond to my surroundings. History and the human experience are always creeping into my work.
I just got back from the Picasso sculpture exhibit at the MOMA and the Andrea del Sarto exhibit at the Frick. I’ve been looking at Andrea del Sarto's mannerist students for well over a decade now, and I see a distant cousin in the cubists, and how they bend the viewer around space, and push the viewer's attention in different directions. I spent a lot of time in my training with artists like Lucian Freud, and later, Edwin Dickinson. Bonnard was also an early influence. I’ve enjoyed the searching in early American painters, like Joshua Johnson, and Francis Guy. There are a ton of artists in the Maryland /DC/Virginia area that I enjoy looking at. I recently saw a great talk by Amy Sherald, and was blown away by Renee Stout's work a few years ago at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.
DC: I notice from the painting in the 5th anniversary show and your "Paper Paintings" that you have scaled up the objects and people in your work compared to some of the older. Your older work seems to reveal a larger space, while the newer seems to be compressing it, spatially and compositionally. Can you talk about that shift?
TJ: My painting “Home” in the 5th anniversary show and the “Paper Paintings” in my studio right now are bit of a spatial departure from the smaller figures in the landscape of recent years. I have had an interest in breaking up the picture plane and fragmenting space. I like how compressing space seems to push back at the viewer. It’s a nice challenge after trying to pull the viewer into the “window” of the picture plane for years.
DC: What role do you see the figures take in your paintings, both psychologically and historically?
TJ: Painting is one of the ways I seek to understand my environment and figures are part of that. The paintings “The Next Mountain” and “Home” in the 5th anniversary show are akin to a number of my works, that I occasionally have done over the years, in that they trying to capture something about the feeling of being human. These works, like a lot of my other works, are also about the relationship between people and their environment. This theme carries into my work dealing with history as well. I’m generally trying to explore something about the lingering influence or seeming lack of influence of what came before present day life. It’s hard for me to look at anything and not immediately want to consider its provenance.
DC: I see influences in everyone's work, as it's unavoidable and necessary as we should be aware of the history of our craft. Over your last ten years, I see possible influences ranging from Paula Rego, Vulliard, Walter Sickert, Neo Rauch, Dana Schutz, and the Cubists. Could you talk about the timeline of your paintings during this period and what ideas were present when you angled off from one body of work to the next?
TJ: Those are all great painters. I think the large list of possible influences that show up in my work is attributable to spending a lot of time at the National gallery in DC. My family took a couple of trips a year there, when I was growing up. So many of the works felt grand, mysterious and loaded with story. Inspirations from this awesome collection have spontaneously volunteered themselves over the years. I also studied for two semesters in Italy, where I was inspired by all sorts of late and early Italian Renaissance artists, from Cimabue to Pontormo. Though I do feel the motivations and themes in my work stay pretty constant, changes in style and form have been motivated by storytelling quite a bit. Neo Rauch was someone who I looked at in Grad school when I was making images packed with figures. His work helped me think about how to be freer in my narratives. Moving from Georgia back to Baltimore, my work became more focused on the city, friends, and how people were reacting to the recession. You might be able to see this in my rooftop paintings. That renewed involvement with Baltimore pushed me deeper into looking at history directly in my highway series, and “Lost Horseshoe” series. Looking at history has forced me to look more closely at my environment, even when the works are not clearly depicting history.
Additional Works by Teddy Johnson