Mixed media artist M. Jane Johnson’s “Splendid Fortitude” celebrates the incomparable beauty of the geisha – evoking their presence in large, multi-media paintings. Viewers are invited into the wildly colorful and mysterious world of Japanese geisha, on view October 5–November 5, 2017 at The Art League gallery.
Johnson “didn’t set out to paint geisha.” According to the artist, the brilliantly hued, enigmatic figures began to take shape in her work soon after a close friend was diagnosed with lung cancer. Johnson was inspired by her friend’s fierce resolve to meet the hardships of her illness with bravery and grace. During this difficult year Johnson noticed that the figures of elegant women, wrapped in gleaming robes, repeatedly emerged and took shape within the abstracted forms in her paintings. They were a fitting muse; after all, the English translation of “geisha” is “artist.” In Johnson’s eyes, geisha captured the spirit of her late friend with their strength, elegance, beauty, and Splendid Fortitude.
For Johnson, creating this exhibit was an emotional catharsis. With every brushstroke, she was in communion with her departed friend – the paintings were as much an act of remembrance as an artistic exploration into the cultural history of geisha. The performative process of becoming a geisha, from the meticulous application of makeup to the tying of the kimono’s obi is an act of transformation. Johnson also performs a transformation: layer upon layer is added to her canvases until the geisha’s poised figure emerges – some paintings are “built” from 50 different layers. “It’s a way of satisfying my need to build something,” Johnson mused. “It’s a whole process for geishas to create their image just like it’s a whole process for me to create my paintings.”
To produce the stratified surface of these paintings, Johnson drips layers of acrylic paint onto freezer paper and allows them to dry and form a skin– a flexible, plastic-like puck of pigments that she attaches to the paintings with glazing medium for added texture and embellishment. Her paint colors are bright and snappy – a result of her shrewd ability to time the switch of her paintbrushes to every infinitesimal change in the paint’s hue.
The faces of Johnson’s geisha bear no distinct features. They are abstracted; purposefully anonymous and unrecognizable. Johnson wants viewers to be able to project intimate personas onto the figures, and hopes that everyone can recognize within her artwork the inner strength of their loved ones, especially those who are meeting personal challenges with grace and resilience.
Johnson began her artistic study in Danville, VA, receiving a BFA from Stratford College. Her work has been featured in numerous solo shows and group exhibits throughout Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC. Johnson has received accolades from the Washington Post, Elan magazine, and the Alexandria Commission for the Arts. Johnson lives and paints in the Virginia area, where she continues to explore the three hallmarks of her work: vivid colors, lively patterns, and unique textures.
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