Thursday, 12 October 2017

Jasper Johns: 'Something Resembling Truth' at the Royal Academy

As well as exhibitions about Matisse and Dali/Duchamp, the Royal Academy also has an exhibition about Jasper Johns at the moment. It's subtitled 'Something Resembling Truth' part of a quote of Johns talking about his art. This is the largest of the three exhibitions and takes up most of the first floor galleries. It's the first exhibition I've been torn a long time where the artist is not only still alive but is still working.

I'd been looking at the poster for the exhibition and wondering why anyone would paint a broom? What's that about? Of course, that work - titled 'Fools House' - is included in the exhibition and I was surprised to see that it's not a painting of a broom, it's an actual broom hung in front a painted background. I am, of course, still none the wiser.

Something I found odd about the exhibition was the repetitive nature of the works. There were a few versions of his American flag paintings but it was when we moved on to his numbers paintings that it was really noticeable. I really liked '0 through 9' as a clever and very colourful painting and quite liked the black and white version hung close to it but the next room was full of different paintings of numbers, single numbers, groups of numbers, in this colour and that, some black and white and some grey, numbers in aluminium or bronze, big numbers and small, lots and lots of numbers.

I can see that if this was the sort of work Johns was producing then that should be represented in the exhibition - but do we need to see so many of these works? Wouldn't a few serve just as well to be representative of his work?

There are a few 'big splat' paintings with bright, bright colours and the use of words to both illuminate and to title paintings. There are paintings with balls (literally) and other objects, such as plastic arms or legs attached in some way, making the flat painting more cultural and three dimensional. Some used long pieces of string to deliver this three D effect, draped across paintings to direct the eye or simply to confuse.

In another room we see some of his sculptures of objects, such as beer cans and a vase made to resemble a jar with paint brushes sticking out the top. And then, of course, he paints them as well so we get a painting of the sculpture. It gets odder and odder.

A painting I was taken with was 'The Dutch Wives' from 1977, painted using a cross-hatching style, filling the canvases with lots of short lines in shades of grey, moving this way and that, very busy and strangely compelling. I have no idea why it's called 'Dutch Wives'. And then I turned round and saw the room was full of paintings in a  similar cross-hatching style, sometimes colourful and sometimes not. It's almost as if Johns has decided that's the only way to paint so he kept on using that approach until he got bored with it. As with the number paintings, why so many in the same style?

I think my favourite paintings was the series collectively known as 'The Seasons'. Four large paintings in a similar style but each representing a different season. In each, Johns uses his own shadow to provide the figurative aspect to the painting and includes various objects, presumably that represent the seasons in his own mind. 'Winter' and 'Fall' were my favourites (possibly because we're in autumn at the moment) and I liked the muted colours and the shapes he created on the canvas. He produced a fifth painting, a cruciform work that combined the motifs from the four seasonal paintings. I preferred the four large season paintings in the order in which he placed them.

One of the final paintings was 'Green Angel' from 1990 and it rather stood out from the crowd for various reasons, not least that he's included sand in the surface of the painting. I don't know if he mixed it into the paint or scattered it onto the wet canvas later but it creates a really interesting texture to the work.

So there we are. I didn't find this the most satisfying of exhibitions but it's nice to see so  many of his works collected together - even if they are occasionally a bit repetitious. The exhibition is on until December so there's plenty of time in which to see it if you're inclined.

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