Private terrains

SOME art can only be described as intimate and private -- even if it also appeals deeply to others and causes the artist who produced it to win fame and fortune. The work of Odilon Redon, Rodolphe Bresdin, and Paul Klee falls into this category, as does the art of numerous lesser-known painters and printmakers. In every case this special quality results from the fact that the artist drew heavily upon profoundly personal, if often only partially understood, interior creative resources.

In many cases, the pictures thus produced are the artist's painterly equivalents of private fantasy worlds in which a passion for beautiful colors, exotic animals and birds, lovely old buildings, romantic mountain vistas, and anything else of similar nature is given form. For Redon, this meant stunning floral bouquets and strange, mythological creatures; for Bresdin, intricately detailed black-and-white allegorical landscapes; and for Klee, a mysterious world in which rich colors and delicate abstract forms interact with a complex vocabulary of lines to produce provocative images that are both ``real'' and ``abstract.''

Unfortunately, this kind of art is generally considered of less importance than the more solemn and monumental kind produced by our ``major'' artists. Superb as Redon and Klee were, for instance, they are seldom mentioned when the greatest painters of their periods are discussed -- or at best they are brought up as an afterthought. And if that is the case with artists of their stature, it is even truer of those of lesser accomplishment.

No one in the United States has suffered more from this form of prejudice than Ynez Johnston, a painter, printmaker, and sculptor whose delightfully frisky and colorful works have given pleasure to many over the past 35 years, but whose reputation has never matched those of several of her more robust and aggressive contemporaries.

This is so even though her career started out with a bang in the early 1950s with numerous one-woman museum exhibitions, important grants and awards, and inclusion in almost every significant national group show. Since then, several of America's most prestigious museums -- including the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art -- have bought her paintings, and she has exhibited in Brazil, Japan, Spain, Italy, and Canada. Even more important, she has continued to grow as an artist and has remained totally open and receptive to new ideas and forms of expression.

Her most dramatic growth has been in the area of color and in her ability to create complex but remarkably unified images out of literally dozens of tiny, crisply delineated, and brilliantly colored formal elements. These elements, upon closer examination, suggest the possibility that they might represent animals, trains, human beings, cities, birds, boats -- or any number of other things. Whether or not they actually do represent these things is never made precisely clear -- or if it is with a few, it most definitely is not with most.

Rather than confusing the issue, however, this uncertainty as to these forms' exact identity only adds to her work's mystery and charm. Our imagination is stimulated by the enigmatic nature of her pictures, and we find ourselves attempting to unravel their ``meanings'' while also becoming more and more caught up by their romantic and evocative color.

Color and mystery soon win out, for the enchantment of Johnston's art lies precisely in the fact that it provokes and evokes rather than defines or describes. No matter how hard we try, the ``meaning'' of her images eludes us. That should come as no surprise, however, for these works have no specific meanings, no rigidly defined interpretations. If anything, they are primarily allusive, representing fugitive memories of age-old cultures and civilizations, half-forgotten dreams of things that were or might have been, or echoes of primitive art including Mayan stone carvings, Altamira cave paintings, and Cherokee teepee designs.

In some ways her works resemble archaeological digs before the actual digging has begun, with only a few shards, broken pieces of statuary, and clay tablets covered with hieroglyphics scattered about to indicate the full richness of what lies buried underneath the sand.

If we accept her work on its own terms and respond to its enigmatic, subtly totemic, tentative, and radiantly colorful qualities, we will recognize it for the rare and special art it is. If we do not, if we insist it be more positive, ``serious,'' monumental, or precisely defined, we will miss its point entirely and will probably end up viewing it as of less interest and importance than the work produced by more solemn and heavy-handed creative individuals.

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