Ian Johnson may have taken a page out of Pocahontas's book. Instead of painting all the colors of the wind, his inks and acrylics capture frequencies. In his third showing at Park Life, Johnson builds on his interest in a slew of musicians that dominated the jazz scene from the 1940s to the '60s. The show's title, Of The Living Sky, pays tribute to the freewheeling and distinctly afro-futurist approach of musician Sun Ra.
Based on photographs, Johnson's portraits place his subjects against atmospheric backgrounds of warm, saturated color, echoing the rich, emotional and hard-driving history of jazz. Among the show's many exceptional pieces is a smiling Abbey Lincoln in "As Long As Your Living." The singer-songwriter is set before a mesmerizing sky of dense oranges, reds and fuchsias progressing upwards from mild blues.
Geometric patterning finds its way into several pieces, accentuating the funk vibe. Dress shirts are penned in thin crisp lines, which also radiate from or behind select individuals including Duke Ellington, Chet Baker and members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Contours are followed in a refined sketch-like manner, making cheekbones pop and a saxophonist's forehead wrinkle in concentration.
Most portraits contain beams of color, which take on a sci-fi quality recalling the space age philosophy of Sun Ra. Johnson carries this element into his installation, which is only noticeable if one looks up and to the right. Painted wooden rods spew from one of the gallery's corners reaching toward the middle of the ceiling.
Johnson has been working on this show for the better part of a year, splitting his time with his position as art director at Western Edition Skateboards. That gig marries Johnson's interests well, but these days he says the ratio of skateboarding, making art and sleeping is about 1 : 17 : 30.
Of the Living Sky is on view through May 1, 2010 at Park Life in San Francisco.