Art Exhibition: Leasho Johnson’s “A Deep Haunting”

TERN Gallery presents Leasho Johnson’s “A Deep Haunting.” The exhibition will be on view from June 23 to July 30, 2022, and the opening reception will take place on Thursday, June 23 at 7:00pm (EST). Born and raised in Jamaica, Johnson’s work reconfigures mythic archetypes to evoke embodiments of queerness.

The artist explains: “For this presentation of works with TERN Gallery Bahamas, I took in consideration that this is the first time I will be presenting my ‘Anansi series’ back in the tropics where it originated. In this ongoing series, my characters have begun to collapse into vivid abstraction made by the conjunction of hand-made mediums, charcoal drawing, and subtractive stencil work. The concept of Anansi is an embodied metaphor for finding psychological space for black queer love. By embracing the mythology of the multi-legged creature’s anthropomorphism, Its African origin, and a metaphysical marker for moments of queer intimacy.”

Description (provided by TERN Gallery): Now based in Chicago, Johnson’s recent work considers the environment of his native country as a way of looking back. Reflecting on the Caribbean as a site of trauma and extraction, the artist sees vestiges of colonialism in the performance of gender — recognizing how ingrained values of domination continue to police social behavior. The show’s title alludes to the opening lines of Martin Munro’s The Haunted Tropics, an anthology of ghost stories that use characterizations and fiction, to account for the colonial experiences of the Caribbean. Johnson began his studio work as a process of catharsis, aiming to explore and expel growing up in a society that renders his sexuality invisible. The resulting compositions are both beautiful and tenaciously positive: paeans to the secret life of queer culture in the tropics, where clandestine mountain parties unlock new patterns and pathways of self-expression to the underlying throb of Dancehall beats.

The works in A Deep Haunting consist of complex overlays of figurative and abstract forms that demand one’s attention to gesture and space. A key aspect of Johnson’s cathartic vision involves the use of folklore as an ancient tool of explanation and affirmation. Anansi, the shape-shifting trickster of West African and diasporic oral traditions, represents to the artist a metaphysical marker of queerness — in all its subversive fluidity. Johnson begins his gorgeous, carefully rendered wall-works with an evocation of the figure in uniformly black charcoal, amorphously alluding to the shape of a face or intertwined limbs. The artist’s ambiguous figurations center and humanize a compellingly abstract exploration of color and space, evoking, almost by surprise, the sensations, and glimpses of “unacquainted love between two men, their anxieties, and stolen moments in near-by bushes.”

Incorporating a wide variety of media, many of which reference commodities of colonial trade that have become foundational elements of artmaking today, Johnson’s work materially stands at the intersection of drawing and painting. The artist incorporates charcoal and collage onto paper already primed with distemper. Layering in watercolor and oil paints as well as a host of natural dyes, Johnson’s method is a ritualistic process of application that produces bursting, complex abstractions which he finally pins to canvas – a form of collage that ultimately affirms the work’s painterliness. Johnson is emphatic in his use of charcoal, coffee, indigo and logwood dyes – all common media materials or household goods that owe their prevalence to the extractive forces of Caribbean colonialism and its centuries of subjugation. By subtly incorporating such charged material, Johnson further connects Black queer people of his homeland with the imaginative environments of his work. Johnson’s finishing touches are often wayward motifs in bright neon acrylic, a medium rich in the artist’s personal history and referential of the warm, undulating tones of a Dancehall party. The bright splashes that hold these imagined spaces together often wrap around and contour the undulating Anansi forms – masking or revealing them in ways which can range from erotic to grotesque. In Johnson’s exceptional treatment of color, and the masterful control through which he deploys it, emotions run through the viewer to ambiguous ends. Premonitions wend their way through Johnson’s explorations of space, in turn drawing the viewer into their atmospheres with the sense of faded memory or exiled nostalgia – hauntings that strike us both gently and deeply.

Leasho Johnson (b. 1984, Montego-Bay, Jamaica) is a visual artist working in paintings, collages, sculptures, street art and digital medium. His work centers the contestations and tensions in western culture around sexuality and seeks to explore contemporary meanings in context to historical truths. He is currently based in Chicago where he also lectures at the School of Art Institute Chicago. He is a current fellow of Jamaica Art Society and The Leslie Lohman Museum (2020-2021). Johnson has shown his work Caribbean wide and internationally such as Canada, Brazil, Norway, Scotland, The United Kingdom and the United States.

TERN GALLERY is a gallery in Nassau, The Bahamas, which opened its doors in December 2020. Recognizing the need for world-class contemporary art spaces to bring Bahamian artists to local and global acclaim, Amanda Coulson and Lauren Perez, together with Gallery Manager Jodi Minnis, debuted TERN, creating a space of opportunity that had previously been absent in the often eurocentric art world. TERN offers a platform for Bahamian artists to find international success, setting pathways for young and emerging artists to access careers in the arts beyond the prior realm of possibility.

[Shown above: top, “Anansi and the river maiden (Anansi #16),” 2022. Charcoal, watercolor, distemper, indigo dye, logwood dye, oil, collage, gesso on paper mounted on canvas; 67.5 x 104 x 2 inches. Second, “On the river, Pon di bank (Anansi #11),” 2021, Charcoal, watercolor, distemper, indigo dye, logwood dye, oil, collage, gesso on paper mounted on canvas, 68 x 52 x 2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and TERN Gallery.]

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