267 Church Street, Richmond 3121

P: (03) 9427 0140


— Introduction by Charles Nodrum

George Johnson




90 years on Earth
70 years in the Studio
30 years with this Gallery

Whilst ruminating about the metaphysical make-up of the world around him, an author whose name I've forgotten came up with words to this effect: "First you've got these things and behind them there's ... this rigour".  He was thinking not scientifically (about their atomic or cellular structure) but poetically - about how material objects impinge on our conscious minds and make their presence felt with their particular toughness and resilience.

Quite separately, Bernard Smith, in his path-finding Australian Painting, discerned two strands in the then flowering years of abstract painting in Australia: the expressive and painterly and the symbolic, which included artists such as French, Coburn, Kemp, and Johnson.  Often the latter chose totemic and iconic forms which had, traditionally, been made, and used, for contemplative purposes.  In Johnson's case they often centred around the mysterious processes that operate on (and inside) the earth.  Following a visit to Peru, where he was entranced by the architecture of the Incas who had developed structures to protect their buildings against earthquakes, his forms became strictly geometric and, with only a few exceptions, rectilinear. 

The limited palette and vocabulary of the later years, combined with an ascetic surface devoid of painterly inflection or surface texture, would seem the perfect recipe for sameness and repetition. But this was not the case.  In the large and handsome retrospective at the Ballarat Art Gallery in 2002, every single work maintained its individuality.  This experience is relatively rare but it does occur: Robert Hunter's paintings assert their distinctiveness very slowly, but very steadily, and seeing a gallery full of Giorgio Morandi's still life paintings proved similar; what at first glance risked being a tediously uniform and arbitrary juggling of jars and bottles, turned out to cover a range of moods from an almost Buddhist serenity to something close to existential angst.

If something similar happens with George Johnson, here are two suggestions.  First, getting back to the author contemplating the rigour of things around him, Johnson's shapes have a similar toughness.  Whether blocky or stretched, lumpy or attenuated, light or heavy, they always emphasise their "hereness".  Second, keeping in mind his origins as a symbolic abstractionist, the paintings take on a significance that transcends their surface geometry and veer towards a world of animistic activity and at this point, each shape can be seen as alive - or at least symbolically displaying characteristics usually associated with consciousness.  

If tensions arise from the constituent forms themselves, the tensions expand in the works as wholes.  They float and sink, cut across and through, fold over and under; sometimes they touch and sometimes they repel.  And often they are ambiguous: some triangles rise loftily above the melee beneath them - or hack down through it like an axe or wedge.  Sometimes a stern simplicity is imposed; sometimes a tenuous balance is achieved.  A painting can look as stable as a pyramid - or a house of cards.  This animistic interpretation allows us to read them as abstract documents of our time and, as such, I occasionally play games giving them imaginary titles. Russia enters the Syrian War; UN peacekeepers between ... (fill in opposing sides as applicable); A debate in the House of Reps; Caesar stabbed in the Senate; The fight outside the pub; The demonstration; The Board of Directors juggling competing financial options or, more peacefully, but often equally chaotic, The birthday party; Across a crowded room; Closing time at Young and Jacksons; and even, given the taut and somewhat acerbic frame of mind he shares with John Brack, 5 o'clock Collins Street

In other words, his paintings can be seen as abstract depictions of the way we conceptualise issues and relate to the social world around us.  If the results look unstable or precarious or seem to be bordering on chaos, that’s because that’s the way the world works.  


Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.