The title of Ezra Johnson’s solo exhibition at Freight + Volume, It’s Under the Thingy, is reminiscent of Amy Sillman’s flamboyant one lump or two at the ICA Boston and Bard’s Hessel Museum. There is some kind of material presence being pointed to by these unabashedly playful monikers, but to what end? For Sillman, there is a doubling process: perhaps one thing begets another, like multiplying cells, or maybe something is taken whole and dissolved in a cup of tea, like the never-ending process of decomposition and re-composition endured by the figures in her animations. There is an undeniably physical, embodied presence somewhere, in multiple states of being, within her canvases.
Johnson, who also works in both painting and animation, evokes an ethos of concealment; there is something hidden from sight, yet we claim to know where it is, blindly hoping that nothing dangerous resides “under the thingy.” Sillman and Johnson point to the multiple lives of a given medium — it is hidden, dissolved, consumed in its wedding to concept, while remaining a forcefully physical presence. No matter how unsure we are about the medium’s nature or location, there is always an unapologetically material aspect, simultaneously concealed and expanded by conceptual factors.
At Freight + Volume, Johnson offers us an extended critique of this age-old interplay by combining works of different media with a commitment to formal rigor. When entering the show, one is immediately overwhelmed by “Shelves of Sponges” (2014), a wall of hand-crafted ceramics that resemble swaths of dirty pigment. I thought of Allan McCollum’s The Shapes Project: Collection of Forty-eight Perfect Couples (2005/2014) at Petzel Gallery this fall, a colorful and playful, but nevertheless incisive and critical, evaluation of humanity’s impossible and problematic desire to categorize the world. Just as McCollum is designing a shape for every living person, Johnson’s ceramics suggest an interior life. Each has a partner, it seems, and they often have to lean on each other for stability. Their materiality — the creases and folds and chips — causes these pieces to enter into a tenuous community with one another.
In this way, the erotics of the art object become Johnson’s subject. In the gallery’s back room he presents a seemingly ludicrous comparison: “Ser” (2011), a tiny painting of two flamboyantly fleshy hands stretching Saran wrap, and “Der, Die, Das” (2014), three enormous sponges made of Polystyrene, resin, bondo, enamel that could be props for a children’s show. The Saran wrap, erotic and tactile, is reminiscent of translucent skin, yet the materiality upon which Johnson insists renders what should disappear into something concrete. Paint becomes flesh and vice versa, begetting a corporeal layering that imbues the canvas with a life of its own. Similarly, Johnson’s sponges, like oversize crackling pork rinds, read as concretized sculptural manifestations of his plastic-wrap-turned-flesh. Johnson’s interest in a variety of materials exhibits a unified passion: to consider the embodied intersections between and within art objects. No longer is painting a medium that can only speak to its position in a decentralized, self-referential aesthetic system; rather, paint can be as full and rich as our own bodies while maintaining its critical urge.
Ezra Johnson: It’s Under the Thingy continues at Freight + Volume (530 W 24th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 1.