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“Convergence: The Art of Karl and Indira Johnson” brings together the painting and ceramic art of two Evanston artists often exploring overlapping themes of rootedness and change. The exhibit runs until May 12, 10-6 daily at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center Gallery, 927 Noyes St.
Evanstonians know this creative husband and wife more familiarly as:
• Indira Freitas Johnson, the sculptor who created the Raymond Park grouping of bronze chairs called “Conversations: Here and Now” (2009) and
• Karl Johnson, arborist and artist. He was co-owner and vice president of Nels J. Johnson Tree Experts Inc. until 2009, when he retired and returned to his first love, painting.
It has been four decades since the Johnsons put on an exhibit together, and that was in India in 1969, the year after they were married. She grew up in Mumbai (Bombay), India, and he in Evanston, but they met as students at the Art Institute of Chicago. Later he won a grant taking them to Sweden’s University of Lund, where she began seriously working with clay for the first time. Their next stop was the University of Denver, where he studied art restoration. In the mid-1970s they moved to Evanston, where he joined his family’s tree business, but he always kept a hand in the art world.
The paintings of self-described arborist-artist Karl Johnson often focus on the interplay of nature and science. Indira Johnson’s sculptures reflect both the Indian culture she grew up in and the American culture she lives in. She calls herself an artist-cultural worker, so it is not surprising her work often probes cultural issues such as how women juggle their various roles within the family, community and workplace. Together, the art of Karl and Indira Johnson creates a fine tension, reflecting the cross-fertilization of ideas they have confronted together and apart as artists and life partners.
In this exhibit, Ms. Johnson gives new meaning to “mixed media.” Her sculptures incorporate a rake, faucet handles, mattress springs, a garden trowel, chain-link fencing and computer cords. She uses these discarded, everyday objects to create sometimes whimsical, sometimes elegant but always thought-provoking pieces. For example, #2 of “Humanizing Technology” includes a faucet handle with colorful legs popping out of its pipes, “Recycled Energy #10” incorporates a tin funnel atop a branch and “Balance of Power” is partly a toothed gear wheel. Ms. Johnson says she recycles common materials into art to explore change and transformation, the cycle of life.
And everywhere she plays with hands and feet, often unattached to bodies or beings, as in “Breathe,” “Recycled Energy #9” and “#10” as well as #3 of “Humanizing Technology.” “In Search of Sakti” features a giant foot hanging in mid-air on a sandalwood garland. Where better to put a floating foot than in a sandal – in this case, in a sandalwood tree with the foot the apparent foliage. Ms. Johnson used bedsprings inside chicken wire to shape the foot.
This fantastic piece, “In Search of Sakti” is installed around the corner from the rest of the exhibit near the building’s southwest stairwell. Sakti is a Hindu goddess whom Ms. Johnson says she sees as “the creative power or generative principle that resides in each of us.”
A remarkable number of unattached hands, feet and even eyes abound in Karl Johnson’s paintings, too. Stray eyes dot “Winter Moon on Buchanan.” Unattached legs and feet are all over the colorful “Last Laugh.” Wandering hands and feet sprinkle “What’s in a Handshake,” a playful Maurice Sendak-style melange of fantasy monsters.
In this exhibit, Mr. Johnson’s work ranges from snowstorm to singer, from ostrich to rooster. His background as an arborist is reflected in “Spring Planting” and “Winter Moon on Buchanan.” His outdoor interests are seen in the sassy rooster of “Nature’s Way” and the India ink skiers of “A Day on the Slope.”
The show is curated by Barbara Goldsmith and Chie Curley. Noyes Cultural Arts Center opened in 1977 in the former Noyes School, designed in 1892 by world-famous Evanston architect Daniel Burnham.