Adobe Proved Fertile Ground for
'Mission School' Artist
Chris Johanson's work featured
in Whitney Biennial

San Francisco Chronicle

April 10, 2003

In a recent segment of KQED's arts show, "Spark," the camera follows artist Chris Johanson as he walks down 16th Street. He approaches Adobe books, where he greets his old friend, the store's proprietor, Andrew McKinley. The two men embrace, and McKinley says, "Chris, you're back!"

Johanson's voice-over explains, "This is one of the most important places in the world to me. This is basically my home. A lot of people have met here and become friends." In the next shot, Johanson is in the store, chatting with strangers and holding up a new painting by another friend, artist Chris Corales. Chris Johanson is indeed home.

In 2002, Johanson was featured in the Whitney Biennial in New York, the major coming-out party for young American artists, and had a celebrated solo show at New York's Deitch Projects. Johanson brought along a team of Mission District artist friends to install the Deitch show, and Mission-based band Tussle played at the opening.

This year, back in his native Northern California, he is one of four artists in the SFMOMA's SECA Art Award Show, which recognizes younger regional artists.

At the SECA opening at SFMOMA, Johanson seems uncomfortable in what he confirms is his unimaginable position, especially when he's faced with compliments from strangers. When cornered by a woman who eagerly tells him, "I thought you stole the show at the Whitney," Johanson is momentarily struck mute but recovers quickly, saying, "Thanks. It was a lot of fun."

Johanson is the latest in a string of artists to rise to art stardom out of what is now referred to as the "Mission School" of San Francisco artists, a group that shares a rough-hewn style and interest in urban themes created with found or recycled materials or often painted directly on walls, graffiti-style.

The school includes internationally acclaimed artists Barry McGee, the late Margaret Kilgallen and Alicia McCarthy.

With his recently grown shaggy beard, long hair and somewhat lumbering, strong-shouldered bearing, Johanson seems, physically at least, the best suited to represent this unwitting school and its recently coined "urban rustic" style.

Johanson's artwork has become more colorful and grand in scale since he first started using black Sharpie markers to draw figures on Mission lampposts and bar rest-room walls in the early '90s. Though his art is now found in museums and galleries, he still paints and repaints on, and builds grand installations out of scrap wood, on which he crafts crudely drawn comic book figures whose often angst-ridden thoughts appear in bubbles over their heads.

For his SECA show, Johanson created a claustrophobic dome gallery-within-a- gallery in which he's placed a small forest made from scrap wood and enclosed in glass like a natural history museum exhibit.

In an even tinier closet-sized room beyond the "forest," the walls are covered with people -- colorful, almost stick-figure pedestrians packed close together, lined up one after the other and row upon row, seemingly marching in place.

Johanson's one other painting inside the dome is of a man in a small boat seemingly lost at sea. The boat is stocked with boxes labeled "food," "asthma inhaler," "recreational drugs" and so on.

Johanson arrived in San Francisco in 1989 as a 20-year-old on a skateboard and came upon Adobe Books almost immediately. He went to Adobe to trade scavenged books for burrito money and for a dose of the energy he still thrives on. He has stopped by "pretty much every day" he's been in San Francisco since then.

© 2006 Jamie Berger