Devin B. Johnson’s Ethereal Paintings Channel Meditative Walks and Personal Memories | Artsy (2024)

Nov 15, 2022 5:13PM

Motivated by the journey as an artist, painter Devin B. Johnson has always been working towards a destination. Back in 2015, as a recent BFA graduate interning at various Santa Monica galleries and working as an Uber driver, his goal was to educate himself on contemporary art and build up a portfolio for a grad school application.

Two years later, as an MFA student at Pratt, Johnson felt driven to immerse himself in a studio practice—plus mentorship from the likes of Derrick Adams—that would bring his work visibility. These days, the destination for the Queens-based artist is to meet the growing demand for his visually tranquil, subliminal paintings of the Black experience, both out in the world and within oneself.

Portrait of Devin B. Johnson by Yousef Hilmy. Courtesy of Devin B. Johnson.

Devin B. JohnsonWater Me Deeply, 2022Artsy Private SalesSold

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In 2019, Johnson finished his MFA at Pratt and started showing in group exhibitions with Nicodim Gallery. In 2020, he had his first Los Angeles solo show with the gallery, which now represents him; he’s since had solo shows at Nicodim’s Bucharest and New York locations, too. In 2022, Johnson also had a solo show at Pond Society in Shanghai, and was included in the Dakar Biennale. His works are now included in both public and private collections across the United States, such as the Hammer Museum, MOCA Los Angeles, the Rubell Museum, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection. Johnson’s work will also be featured in Nicodim Gallery’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach this year.

Along the path, flickering moments from Johnson’s three-decade life have served as guiding lights: His church musician father’s piano recitals every Saturday morning during his childhood inspired the contemplative large-scale painting Serenade (2022); daily walks from his apartment to his studio in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens provide visual and introspective cues for the ongoing “Walkscapes” series. In these works, oil stick and spray paint come together to form hazy yet intentional impressions on linen surfaces; abstract forms stand in both for architectural materiality and the malleability of the mind.

Devin B. Johnson, Serenade, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.

Movement through memories and places is crucial for the California-born artist. Early on, a critical realization dawned on him, prompted by the protagonist’s journey in Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel The Alchemist. “I was in a place of comfort and needed to switch up my cards on my deck to see what I was made of,” Johnson said in an interview via FaceTime from a Brooklyn street. That line of thinking led the artist to take a risk: He applied to just one grad school program.

Another turning point came in 2020, when Johnson returned home from Black Rock Senegal, Kehinde Wiley’s artist residency in Dakar, where he had been for four months—an extended stay due to the pandemic’s travel restrictions. New York City was transformed with the Black Lives Matter protests. “Boarded-up windows and emptied streets forced me to feel on the periphery of the city and face the products of time,” Johnson recalled. “As an artist, I felt that I could pick up that confusion, ambiguity, and frustration.”

Devin B. Johnson, Walkscapes #3 (Iron Oxide), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.

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From this epiphany, walking emerged as a form of meditation and artistic search. He found instrumental resources—Walkscapes: Walking as an Aesthetic Practice by Italian architect Francesco Careri and The Eyes of the Skin by Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa—which helped him channel the sensations he experienced while walking into painting. “If memories are encrusted on the orifices and façades of the city, architecture is a moving organism itself,” he offered, “and sidewalks are the arteries of a whole system.”

While touching a crusty wall on a street corner, he continued, “I want the audience to be guided by the way I see the city through my sensibility to make textures feel seductive to the eye.” The urge one might find to touch Johnson’s paintings, he explained, “is a guttural emotional sense for people to attach with my work and my personal story.”

Devin B. Johnson, installation view of “My Heart Cries, I Set Out an Offering for You” at Nicodim Gallery, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.

He finds a parallel between his formal experiments on the canvas and public walls as surfaces painted by time, weather, and human activity. He points to Matt McCormick’s 2001 documentary The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, in which city workers cover up graffiti artists’ works with abstract washes of color—yielding unintended painterly accents. The public-facing nature of a wall provides Johnson endless fodder for his work. “If my observations are expansive and new day-to-day, I can come from a scarily real and raw place,” he explained.

The politics of being a Black flâneur in the United States who transforms his contemplations into art has become a pillar of Johnson’s practice. Though critical, too, is the artist’s poetic determination to craft his own visual grammar.

Devin B. Johnson, Choir, 2020–21. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.

Devin B. Johnson, Something Pink, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.

He described his work as “subjective judgements of beauty, without having to explain why,” and his subjects as “totems of myself or my loved ones.” These subjects seem to relish fleeting moments, as their likenesses are blurred by Johnson’s experiments with color and light. In Choir (2020–21), a heavy, gray abstraction with a newsprint image of singers, the artist salutes his choir singer grandmother and organ player father; the work now sits in LACMA’s collection. “I am a product of my family members who always supported me, and I see my paintings as erected to them, because I am an extension of their lineage,” Johnson explained.

He enjoys evading simple, direct references, instead delving into the joy of letting colors and textures take the lead towards tactile abstractions. An unapologetically powdery pink-washed detail of a wall in Something Pink or a splashy hallucination in Communion (both 2022) zoom the viewer into an essence—of a concrete wall or the artist’s intentions, if not a mix of both.

A concrete lawn jockey figure has appeared in several of Johnson’s paintings, including Totem (2021), which was included in Nicodim Gallery’s booth at Art Basel in Miami Beach last year. After acquiring the racist decorative object on eBay, the artist put flowers in between its hands, where a fishing pole would typically be placed. This was “a gesture of pacification,” he explained, “of how Black men are perceived in America and to [place] myself into that space.”

Devin B. Johnson, Totem, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.

The childlike figure now sits on a radiator in Johnson’s apartment next to his plants. It also lives in Self Portrait of an Artist as Lover Boy (Totem) (2021), in which the subject’s face is covered by a smear of paint, while his posture is recognizable amid washes of earthy red, greenish yellow, and a touch of teal. The immersion of a body into abstraction in this painting and numerous others runs through Johnson’s practice.

His works are filled with “a two-way ping-pong,” as Johnson puts it, balancing “cathartic snapshots of what I am ingesting every day, and the question of whether a figure is necessary to validate a space.” This alchemy has been constantly evolving for the painter, and so has the journey, and the destination.

The Artsy Vanguard 2022

The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.

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Thumbnail: Portrait of Devin B. Johnson by Frenel Morris. Courtesy of Devin B. Johnson.

Header: Devin B. Johnson, from left to right: “Serenade,” 2022; “Choir,” 2020–2021; and “Water Me Deeply,” 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Nicodim Gallery.

Devin B. Johnson’s Ethereal Paintings Channel Meditative Walks and Personal Memories | Artsy (2024)
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