Much like the pictorial sequence in a comic book, Chris Johanson’s Totalities at Deitch Projects transforms the gallery into a path-like architectural space that structures the viewing experience. In other words, there’s a start and finish to the show, an armature and panel arrangement of paintings that dictates audience interaction with the work, providing little means to escape the road the artist asks you to follow.
The first and arguably strongest room in this exhibition in three parts can be described as an abstracted version of multiple off-site Stargate Atlantis sets. In the center of the space, a grey diamond-esque shape rotates while music plays overhead. Painted landscapes, abstract color fields and rainbow hieroglyphics representing the past, the present and the future are supported by armatures surrounding the moving sculpture. No room to view any work in its totality is provided but for the multicolored swirl painting at the exit. Presumably this is meant to mirror our own inability to view the world en toto while observing from within it.
While the lone painting with a view represents one of the less compelling surfaces in the show — its chunky center pointing towards the exit too easily leads the viewer — almost all the works are skillfully executed, each with thick textured surfaces. Outside the room, a piecemeal carpeted ramp running adjacent to the exposed, wooden-studded walls of the first space leads up to several wall-mounted Mandalas. I don’t have too much interest in the ideas of spiritual wellness this work evokes, but it’s hard to imagine these themes finding a better result. Johanson also used entirely recycled wood in the show, a reasonable way to engage in the idea of natural life cycles and importance of giving back to the environment, if overly literal.
The final portion of the exhibition, upstairs, is comprised entirely of drawings. Often likened to the textual illustrations and installations of Raymond Pettibon, Johanson’s work creates the same kind of visual maze, here the black armature and framing devices functioning like the panels in a comic book. In fact, the text in two drawings reads completely sequentially. “Please make them understand they need to change their ways.” says one picture depicting a man listening to a bird, while the same drawing reworked simply continues on the same track, “Tell them to listen to me more carefully.”
Such relationships only further call attention to the inspiration Johanson’s exhibition draws from comics. Even the physical presentation of subject matter — a mélange of paintings and sculptural objects representing the natural world and the universe — suggests a parallel to what cartoonist Scott McCloud labels as “panel transitions.” in his now canonical book Understanding Comics as Aspect to Aspect. The term describes an illustrative device that juxtaposes related images frame by frame — in this case panels showcasing landscapes, blobs in space, and an array of rainbow abstractions — to communicate different aspects of a place, idea or mood. At the very least, Johanson’s adept use of this technique will move viewers to consider their place in the world or, more limitedly, within the show space.