Kysa Johnson: Crude

September 07 - October 12, 2019

The exhibition, Johnson’s first with the gallery, continues her decades-long exploration of natural patterns existing at the extremes of scale. In the past, Johnson has investigated topics such as the life and death of stars, and the origins and cultural valence of gold.

Crude focuses on the natural history of oil, from its chemical inception in nebulae to its modern extraction from the earth. The works in Crude cycle through five geologic/historical periods.

First, paintings associated with Johnson’s Long Goodbye series use a visual alphabet of particle decay patterns to depict nebulae whose young stars emit ultraviolet light, believed by scientists to generate hydrocarbons, oil’s key ingredient.

Second, Johnson’s lyrical watercolors recast Monet’s Water Lily paintings as depictions of the primordial soup of life. Monet made his late masterpieces during World War I, a conflict often described as the first oil war, and Johnson uses their pictorial structure to explore images of microscopic plankton living in the Mesozoic oceans. Plankton, once fossilized, becomes the basic material transformed into oil through millions of years of heat and pressure.

The chalk-on-blackboard drawings articulate the third act in Johnson’s narrative, the plankton as fossil remains.

Large works made in ink on gloss black constitute the fourth period, again using Monet’s water lily compositions, now as a basis for imagining liquid oil in the earth’s crust. These paintings are more compact and dense than the watercolors and chalk drawings, suggesting the unreleased energy within oil deposits. The gloss black background in these works mirrors oil’s black sheen, just as the black in the Long Goodbye series refers to the emptiness of space.

The final stage, oil extraction, is represented by an installation of sculpted plankton forms intermingled with strings of beads whose shape mimics the phytoplankton Prorocentrum donghaiense. In this installation, the ratio of the mass of the rectangular element on the floor to the mass of the ascending beads is roughly the same as the ratio of ten million years (the minimum time required to create oil) to the few hundred years between the first oil well in 1858 and the fast-approaching date when we will have depleted the earth’s supply.
Johnson’s use of different types of scientific notation to construct visual phenomena results in a sensation that the world around us is suddenly decoding into its underlying formulae. Looking at oil from both a geologic and human scale, Johnson calls forth the beauty of an organic substance that, like all of nature, is inherently neutral. Human interaction with oil unleashes its power, an achievement that is both a crowning success and a destructive horror. Johnson’s art focuses attention on technology as a form of knowledge, laying bare a fundamental conundrum: our intellectual powers have built contemporary society but have also placed civilization in a precarious position. Our use of oil is a majestic achievement that poses terrible risks as we transform the earth’s climate at unprecedented speed.
– Daniel Gerwin