Monday, February 9, 2015

The Canvas: Paul X. Johnson

 Mysterious femmes fatales. Suave, clean-cut gentlemen. An abundance of strange, freaky situations. 

All of these things can be found in a film noir or a Hitchcock film, but they also describe the disturbing, twisted world painted by London-based artist Paul X. Johnson.

Needless to say, his visually gorgeous yet chilling work had me floored. His talents have also attracted the attention of magazines, bands, filmmakers, and advertisers. Even though his commissioned portraits of celebrities such as Kristen Stewart and Ryan Gosling are done with amazing realism, it's his imaginary world and the troubled characters that inhabit it that I find most interesting.

Paul X. Johnson. Are You In Love with a Notion?
 Johnson's style is reminiscent of the poster art of the late 1930s to the 1950s. He uses ink and gauche to achieve a saturated, yet muted palette, and the lines in his works are almost impossibly clean and precise. What struck me about his style, besides how arresting it is, is how beautiful yet disturbing his characters look. The environment in each piece is just a little off. Things are sinister, weird, and bordering on the surreal. Johnson's people are good-looking, but there's something wrong with all of them. Studying at these works is similar to the feeling of being watched: you feel the eyes burning the back of your head, yet you don't know where they are coming from. It's an eerie feeling.

Paul X. Johnson. Cover illustration for SHOP London Magazine.

Take the two pictures above. In Are You In Love with a Notion? we see a young woman sunbathing, yet an ominous shadow looms over her. The skies and the water are a miserable shade of iron grey. It spells danger, and you silently hope that she has the sense to run away. In Johnson's cover illustration for SHOP London magazine, we see a young, beautiful woman, but she is holding a black rose. Her fingers are festooned with images of death and foreboding, such as snakes, skulls, and spiders. Her earrings are in the shape of a human heart. It's clear that there's something very creepy about her.

As I've mentioned before, Johnson works in a vintage style, and I feel that he tries to reflect the mentality and the fears that defined those decades long-gone. The Western world was crippled and disillusioned by the Second World War. Veterans returned home broken in body and mind, unable to find work and unable to re-adjust to everyday life. Countries were ravaged by bombing and destruction. Whole groups of people were almost cruelly, horrifyingly exterminated. Films became darker to reflect the changing tastes of the public. Film noir and serious war films replaced the bright and bubbly Busby Berkeley musicals and Astaire/Rogers vehicles. The war, in turn, led to a paralyzing paranoia over Communism and the end of freedom. Salem witch hunt-style trials worsened the problem. People could not look at their neighbor without wondering if he or she was possibly a spy. Fast-forward to the 60s, and you have America stuck in a controversial war, the death of a promising president, and the death of a revolutionary civil rights leader. The times were dark and eerie. Fear was the dominant emotion for three decades. Fear can be seen in the stony eyes and expressionless faces of Johnson's characters. They look calm from the outside, but inside they are troubled and in turmoil. The surprising thing is that many of these emotions are still so relatable today.

Here are a bunch of other amazing prints by Johnson. Since I don't know the meaning of self-control, I'm featuring all of his works for which I could find title info. Please don't hate me.

Paul X. Johnson. Behold a Pale Horse.
Paul X. Johnson. A Brutal Murder in a Public Place.
Paul X. Johnson. Wedding Ring.
Paul X. Johnson. The Disillusionist
Paul X. Johnson. Lose Control.
This piece is particularly interesting. Here we have a man who lives in a big city, where the lights never go out. He is stoic, yet he is drowning. The water on his face can be from either the ominous swimming pool or beads of sweat dripping down his face. It's a portrait of what it feels like to face insurmountable pressure. Unfortunately, I think many of us can relate. 

Paul X. Johnson. Maneater and Humans are Such Easy Prey
These works, in addition to Wedding Ring (which is two pictures above this one) are commentaries on relationships. Maneater alludes to the "Vamp," a woman who uses men to her heart's content, only to throw them away later. The term came about during the 1920s, with flappers and movie stars such as Theda Bara. Humans are Such Easy Prey depicts a woman's face in the mouth of a monster. This can be a symbol for being stuck in an abusive relationship or facing any demon in life. In Wedding Ring, a woman in a wedding dress holds a phone. There is no wedding band or diamond engagement ring on her finger. There is no groom beside her. It's just the phone in her hands, and it's a subtle commentary of our growing dependence on our phones as the driving force of our relationships. The texts and social media posts from our significant other take on more meaning than time spent face-to-face. Are we falling in love with a human or with a 4.5 inch screen? Who (or what) are we truly married to?

Paul X. Johnson. Mugshot.
Paul X. Johnson. Irina Margareta Nistor.
Paul X. Johnson. Cover illustration for SHOP Milan Magazine.
Paul X. Johnson. The Dagger.
Paul X. Johnson. Beyond the Sea.
Here we have the ultimate in decadence. A couple, clean-cut and wearing expensive swimwear, relax on an island paradise with their pet panther. In the distance, a cruise ship sinks, but the couple clearly does not care. It's nothing but an amusing spectacle to them. This is probably a commentary on how we view tragedy from our comfortable place in the world. 

--Sarah

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