Date: October 2002
Author: Jonathan Goodman
Title: Greg Johns, Robert Steele Gallery, New York
Australian sculptor Greg Johns's steel sculptures suggest many influences, among them the organic works of Isamu Noguchi, the monumental, simplified steel structures of Eduardo Chillida, and the massive art of Clement Meadmore. Johns himself cites the visionary engineer Buckminster Fuller and the pure abstract Modernist Kandinsky. These references give Johns's Minimalist works an awareness of cultural history. Yet the citing of influences does not do full justice to the actual achievement of the work itself. Johns likes "the balance between object-making and ideas," and he also believes that form must "co-exist with mythology and symbolism." He creates archetypal forms whose composi- tions may well reference modernity, but they also hark back to a time when sculpture had ritual importance. This combination of intentions makes for an unusually meaningful body of work.
Formally, Johns's works twist and turn in ways that make their simplified shapes eloquent and revealing as viewers make their way around them. The element of time gives Johns's art its self-possession and dignity; the monumentality proves affecting because of its ability to metamorphose from one condition to the next. There is a forceful joining of opposites in Johns's sculpture: as the simple curves form complex arabesques, the stillness of the composition suggests a slow but sure motion from one element to the next. Despite their monumentality, there is a lyrical grace in many works that can suggest the opposite of monolithic gestalt. For example, the very large steel sculpture The Dance Continues (1987-88), at a sculpture park north of Sydney, for all its monumental glory, portrays a personal theme: two figures fluidly dancing with each other. Seen against a backdrop of trees, the sculpture shows a surprising grace and ease of manner, of a kind not necessarily associated with grand size.
None of the works in Johns's New York show were of such large dimensions, but it is interesting to see how the smaller work, often maquettes, can easily feel monolithic. The slightly larger-than-life-size Grounded Figure (1991) consists of an abstracted figure, whose body ends in a point supported by a flat base and from whose head flow three strands of hair, curving sideways and down nearly to the floor. It reminds an American audience of the Native American trickster figure Kokopelli; there is a graphic simplicity to the sculpture that strikes one as coming from an ancient aboriginal culture. The use of rusted reddish-brown steel makes Grounded Figure a materially strong piece, in keeping with its seemingly mythical origins.
Fractal Mandala (2001) appears to encompass the world in its open, spherical construction. This tabletop sculpture, made of mild steel, consists of a ring of curlicue so completely it cannot be discussed separately. There are no extraneous frills in Johns's art, only the expression of minimally rendered forms that suggest universality. In this sense, Fractal Mandala can be perceived as embodied ritual, so spiritualized that all the culturally specific attributes melt away into transcendent means.
Pattern IV (1987-2001), which consists of six steel squares with holes in them, leaves a large open space shaped like a star in its central portion. Again, there is a duality of stasis and motion: the individual parts suggest stillness, but the overall configuration intimates a dance only momentarily stopped. For all the rigor of this work, it also has an unusual romanticism. Johns's mathematical forms come close to feeling intuitive, even spiritual, as the beauty of the constructed elements make itself known to the viewer.
Johns's idealism becomes clear in Run Aground 111 (2001). The object, even when it may easily be seen as something else. His mandalas, open squares, and boats suggest new possibilities by establishing themselves as objects of weight and metaphorical consequence.