Kevin Johnson’s Visual Narration of the Black Experience
By Theo Williams
When thinking of modern artists, Kevin Johnson is a name that has been gaining traction within the art community. An artist whose origin reflects both the American dream and the African-American experience.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky and currently based in Colorado, Johnson is a retired veteran that served in the U.S. Army for 21 years. After serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Johnson diversified his artistry as a painter, graphic designer, sculptor, and animator. Though his resume is diverse, he’s getting a lot of attention for his paintings which feature people of African descent in vibrant and dynamic portraits that leave viewers feeling positive and uplifted. This imparted feeling, combined with the unique use of lines and imagination, form the characteristics of Johnson’s paintings to create a recipe for a signature style that is both modern and rooted in history.
Observing said characteristics, Johnson’s paintings can be noted for their bright saturated colors that allow his figures to both be emphasized and contrasting. On one hand, the bright colors can be seen reflecting in the undertones of the skin. On the other, the background’s vibrant hue also makes the subject more dynamic, which is further emphasized by Johnson’s use of organic lines. He attributes this to his desire to reflect his imaginative mind onto the everyday African American.
His work, in that regard, moves beyond the simple titles of realism and abstraction—rather it begins to enter a uniquely intimate category where his work showcases his personal view, as though looking through the artist’s very eyes. The theme of perspective can be seen in a quite literal sense at times, yet still does not seem forced or abrasive to the viewer. His piece “Freedom and Solitude,” which has a female figure posed facing the viewers, is one example. Here, the focal point around the eye is a circle with accents at the ends that resemble a Mardi Gras mask. This is further established by the saturated greens, yellows, and purples that extend beyond the eye and seem to wrap around the figure.
Several of Johnson’s paintings have abstract lines centering or leading towards one of the subject’s eyes. This choice could be a take on Johnson’s aforementioned personal perspective, but could also be seen as a visual representation of the possibilities of each individual based on their African roots. The African-American community has been seen and represented by different viewpoints for hundreds of years—from their beauty standards to their career choices. All of these assumptions and stereotypes stem from a particular view made by others. By putting emphasis on the eye, Johnson could be alluding to the individual being seen or represented by their own community rather than from another’s.
This interpretation might seem random, but is quite insightful if one considers the origin of abstraction and its roots in African art.
The birth of abstraction has been credited to Pablo Picasso, but the artist himself said that one of his biggest influences was African art, especially when he was developing the style that would become abstract art. He noted that African masks and sculptures were major points of inspiration for himself and other artists who ran in similar circles. One of the fathers of abstract art even has a period of his work that is known as his African period. Major takeaways such as a mix between organic and geometric lines and vibrant colors can be seen as a key characteristic of the abstract style as well as being seen in Johnson’s work. The correlation between traditional African styles of art and modern abstract art is irrefutable.
Despite the comparison to some of the older forms of abstract art, Johnson’s work doesn’t perfectly fit into this particular style. Rather, due to his intent and choice of subject, Johnson lines up more with The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA), a group of artists from the late ‘60s that used the Black identity to promote community and connect the movement of African culture. The organization’s artistic style is characterized by bright saturated colors with organic and geometric shapes, as well as more traditional attributes such as homages to African sculptures or more current representations of African Americans.
Both Johnson and the artists who operated in AfriCOBRA produce work that uses nature and form to invoke community among African Americans. Exploring the different forms that Black people can appear in and the way the community’s history shapes them, these artists who worked decades apart address the needs of Black people in an artistic form. They do this by combining both historical and modern aspects of the Black identity and putting it in an artistic setting that would reach a wider audience, using things like masks and hairstyles. Correlations like this are crucial in curating a distinct Black artistic style that reflects the culture of a people rather than other art movements that focus on ideas of a specific time period.
The history of the African-American experience is not cut and dry. Despite the movement and adaption of those moved throughout the slave trade, their descendants, and their struggles, however, there are a few key universal struggles and ideas that have become the foundations of the Black identity: stereotypes, racial profiling, and poverty. The experience of always being the other or the lower race in society was experienced by all African descendants, even if they were the majority in their region. The foundations and ideas set during the time when slavery was legal have affected all people who were seen as having (or did have) melanin. Even with these struggles though, the community has thrived by adapting to the world they were placed in and by creating new traditions that would go on to become a collective identity.
Johnson steps away from the traditional views of art to inspire others and create a connection for people who have not seen themselves in fine art. Having admired artists like Ted Ellis, Kevin Walker Williams, and his mentor Thomas Blackshear, Johnson is combining individual aspects of his life into his work as well as bigger ideas. Combining nostalgia and the Black identity, Kevin Johnson is shaping up to include his name in the narrative of Black art.
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