Chris Johanson: A Portrait of the Artist
as Seer and Poet and Iconoclast and
Truthsayer and Cool, Trippy Dude
Planet Magazine
Spring 2004

It’s Spring, 2003, at the SECA Awards lecture at San Francisco MOMA. Chris Johanson is the last of the four recipients of the prestigious emerging artist award to speak. The other artists are relatively well-groomed, conservatively dressed and polite; one is shyly funny. They’ve shown slides and cogently talked the audience through their process. Then Johanson takes the stage. His hair and beard are long and wild. He’s wearing well-worn, long cut-off work pants and a tee shirt. He steps up to, then immediately backs away from the podium, away from the mike and out of the spotlight, saying “I can’t see any of you and it’s tripping me out, can you turn the house lights on please? I’m so nervous right now.” The crowd laughs in empathy. The house lights come on and Johanson smiles, scans the audience, and begins his presentation.

Johanson rambles, digresses, voices his opposition to the impending war in Iraq. He swears. He uses the words “trip” and “tripping” a lot (as in, “I try not to trip on that”). On one slide, he pauses for a full five seconds, then says “That’s just like, whatever,” The next slide is a painting of an interracial couple having sex on a countertop. A full five second pause before Johanson says “That’s just about making love, really.” Big laugh again. But Johanson also repeatedly hits on much darker themes: people crowded into cities, war, disappearing redwood forests and pollution, and, amid it all, staying positive in a world full of negatives.

Chris Johanson is nonlinear, spacey, excessive — and he has the crowd in the palm of his hand.

Most of the crowd, anyway. After the first few minutes, one of two fashionably if conservatively dressed middle-aged women turns to her companion and stage-whispers, “He’s an outsider artist.” A minute later, they get up and leave. Johanson is just getting warmed up, and, after showing a few more slides, stating that “all mediums are golden”, he begins the video portion of his presentation. Johanson is known as a painter, not a video artist, and he’s already over time.

After another fifteen minutes and one amateurish but amusing video of a man roaming the California coast dressed up as a conquistador chugging wine from a jug and pompously claiming this land in the name of his queen, Johanson — at this point fully impassioned, offering big gestures that sometimes send his hair flying — finishes his now boisterous performance. As if coming out of a trance, his discomfort returns, and he quickly thanks the audience and leaves the stage, to rousing applause.

It’s easy to see Chris Johanson and think of two other oft-bearded American artist/iconoclasts: Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsburg. But with his risk-taking delivery and eccentric bearing, Johanson also brings to mind another, unexpected American figure: comedian Andy Kaufman. In his work and his speech, Johanson, while fully engaged and engaging, simultaneously seems to be off in his own unreachable world. Also like Kaufman, Johanson constantly treads outside of established boundaries, colors outside the lines. And most of all, Johanson is always straight-faced and super-earnest, but underneath it, somewhere, there’s the hint of a wise-guy wink. You can never quite tell when Chris Johanson is just playing.

The two women who left the SECA presentation early were wrong about Johanson. Of course, such terms aren’t necessarily absolute, but if one is either an outsider or not, Chris Johanson is no outsider. He has been an integral part of a thriving and internationally recognized art scene in San Francisco’s Mission District for the past fifteen years, and is considered a founding member of what’s been coined the Mission School or Urban Rustic group of artists, which includes Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, and Johanson’s best friend Chris Corales.

Johanson’s art career started in high school, when as a skate punk in San Jose he made posters for friends’ punk rock shows. After a stint in college, he arrived in San Francisco in 1989, bought a sharpie marker, and began drawing crude figures — thoughts of urban angst scrawled above their heads — in public spaces throughout the city’s then-gritty Mission district.

In ‘95, his friend and fellow artist Scott Hewicker asked Joahnson to split a show with him at the offbeat Jack Hanley gallery. It was the beginning of a personal and professional relationship between Johanson and Hanley that has thrived to this day. Hanley describes the work at that first show as “all about this figure Negatron who was a guy laying in the gutter.” Hanley recalls that not much sold at that first show, but that one important collector did, surprisingly, and perhaps presciently, buy a piece. Over the next two years, Johanson kept on working feverishly and started showing more work in Hanley’s gallery and other offbeat venues. His big San Francisco break came when he was selected for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ biennial show, Bay Area Now, in 1997. Over the last decade, Bay Area Now has become the major coming out party for young northern California artists. Curator Renee de Guzman recalls that graffiti-turned-celebrated-museum-artists Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen recommended Johanson. As de Guzman explains, “When someone like Barry comes out, everyone’s looking for the same thing. Chris shared some of the same sensibilities, but brought his own genius, language and color.”
In 1999, Hanley took Johanson to the Liste exposition in Basel, a major showcase for alternative artists, where he was a hit. With the successes of Bay Area Now and Liste, Johanson was suddenly in demand without ever showing at what he calls a “hip downtown gallery”. To this day, Johanson takes pride in making work in public spaces, and in bookstores and warehouses as well as in established galleries and museums.

By the year 2000, Johanson was internationally known and making his living from his art but still hadn’t really established himself in the nexus of the establishment art world, New York City. Then Johanson was selected for the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Curator Larry Rinder gave Johanson the choice of a traditional gallery and the space he really hoped the artist would choose, the museum’s four-story stairwell. Johanson chose the stairwell and, with the help of a team of San Francisco friends and the Whitney installation staff (even Rinder stayed up late nights painting the walls with Chris and his troupe), turned it into an epic “picture about the place we live in called Earth that is inside of this place we call space” that started on floor one with two distraught men sitting in the depths of a dark, hardscrabble plywood underworld. The piece then steadily rose to a brightly colored, nearly utopian climax, where figures dangled from the ceiling, floating in a galaxy of planets with names such as “plants and animals”, and “soothing energy”, but also a few others that still hinted at the darkness below, “cold” and “anger” and “grey area”. In the middle of the starry night sky sits a gigantic yellow sun emblazoned with a big “SUN” with text below: “the main reason why far away yet very very close to us all the time the light of the spirit whose warmth is always with you”.
In the New York Times, Holland Carter ripped the 2002 Biennial as a whole, but closed with a rave about Johanson: “With its almost childlike, graffiti-based images and its huge ideas, Mr. Johanson’s work is an inspired addition to the show, and to this city right now.”

If you ask friends and colleagues why Johanson, with his unsophisticated style and stream-of-consciousness wordplay, has succeeded, you’ll get a variety of answers. Chris Corales and Jack Hanley will first mention how hard and constant a worker Johanson is, how making art is an essential part of his day-to-day existence. Another close friend, Andrew McKinley, the owner of what Johanson calls his “home” in San Francisco’s Mission, Adobe Books, attributes Johanson’s success partly to his unique ability to communicate: “He speaks simply for a lot of people who don’t get a lot of say.”

SFMOMA curator Janet Bishop echoes McKinley, but adds: “Chris’s work has a sense of coming straight out unfiltered. He’s able to tackle both the little and big issues with such humor and inventiveness.” And Yerba Buena’s de Guzman talks about Johanson’s way of incorporating bohemians of the past like the beats and the hippies into his punk aesthetic, while throwing in the Andy Kaufman trickster factor that adds another level to the seemingly direct work: “We’re never sure how much he means it and how much is tongue in cheek.” But everyone who’s worked or hung out with Johanson talks about his success in terms of his ability to build and work with community. Friends eagerly fly to New York to help build an installation; curators stay up late at night painting museum walls.

To sit with Johanson at an outdoor café in the middle of his San Francisco home base on 16th Street is to sit with someone very reluctantly holding court. From time to time, people approach, some exuberantly, some hesitantly. Johanson is gracious to all of them, but you can tell he’s not exactly comfortable with the attention. He’s not just Chris from the ‘hood anymore, and while he certainly doesn’t complain about his success, he’s not exactly in his element being an alt-culture celebrity, which may be part of why he’s grown the beard and the long hair over the last two years: his scruffiness at least somewhat separates him from a system that he vehemently disdains. As he puts it, “White male power structure equals evil to me. With the beard, white store owners don’t like me in their stores anymore, security guards watch me. But energy on the street is better than ever.”

The next moment, Johanson talks about his hate for the government and its wars and then about corporate greed. But, conscious of his new, more privileged position in the American food chain, he also discusses success and ambition: “When I was a kid I was ambitiously looking for places to skate and then I was ambitiously making fliers for friends’ bands and then I moved up here and I ambitiously started a band and ambitiously started making paintings. By ambitiously, I mean with full energy.”

Now, in a move that has shocked many friends and colleagues, Johanson has moved to Portland, Oregon. In Fall 2003, Chris Johanson married fellow artist Jo Jackson. The year before, the couple moved home and studio across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland, both for more physical space and some psychic distance from their Mission community. But Johanson found himself coming into the Mission — to Hanley’s gallery and Adobe Books — every day that he was in the Bay Area.

He and Jackson began looking to buy a house in or around San Francisco, but grew more and more frustrated with the area’s inflated real estate market. The following summer, while visiting friends in Portland, the couple bought a house, and in December 2003 they moved north.

After more than a decade of frenetic activity in San Francisco, and with more and more of his work involving people crammed together in the inner city contrasted with the rapidly disappearing beauty of nature, it was apparently time for Chris Johanson to leave the Mission.

On the phone recently, after his first month in Portland, Johanson discussed what comes next. He has upcoming shows in Paris, Scotland, Israel, London, Cincinnati, and back home in San Francisco. But what seemed to excite him most is what he and Jackson are working on right now: “Our garden. Building a modern earthy sculpture house in our back yard out of found wood and filling it with indigenous plants."

In discussing this seemingly personal backyard project, Johanson is upbeat and as ambitious as he would be about the grandest of museum installations - and his voice doesn’t betray even the hint of a wink.
(To see some of Chris Johanson's work, see:



© 2006 Jamie Berger