Off the WallWesthampton Artist Dean Johnson Embraces 3-D Canvases
The creative impulse is in Dean Johnson’s DNA. He began painting at the age of seven Up-island in Jericho by his artist father’s side. While Raymond Johnson painted abstracts, often with floral elements, Johnson the younger embraced Abstract Illusion in which he used water colors and loose backgrounds. He would squirt a noodle of paint straight from the tube onto the canvas and airbrush a shadow behind it “to make it look like it was floating off the canvas.” It sure beat playing with Silly Putty.
Flash back a couple of generations to when Dean’s great-grandfather was an inventor; in fact he was Thomas Edison’s right hand man. While that certainly meant he was a scientific genius, he also was exceedingly creative. “He invented Christmas tree lights,” says Johnson, an act for which he never received recognition.
Growing bored with the same old two-dimensional canvases, when Dean was 18 he changed his direction. Hugely influenced by a show of Frank Stella’s three-dimensional wall sculptures, he knew “this was my life’s work.” He was particularly intrigued by the finishes, one of which was a “plastic type of paint” used to coat the exterior of RVs. He began to make his own “3-D canvases.” It is a medium that still dominates his output.
By the time Dean was 22 he warranted a one-man show. It was held at the famed Stricoff Gallery, making him the youngest artist at the time to have a show in SoHo.
He makes these pieces out of aluminum, plexi-glass and resin. In the mid ‘80s he came across epoxy resin, a material that was rare then but popular now. “It makes what you put it on look like glass. It makes a painting look like it’s ceramic.”
He began making LED 3-D portraits about five years ago. His first were introduced at Sag Harbor gallerist Monica Olko’s booth at ArtHamptons to “great response.”
With these he shines color-changing LED lights on several vertical layers of material on which he has painted images that add up to a portrait of great depth when looked at straight on. The layers can be plexi-glass, dyed resin or clear film. His portraits have been of such icons as John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn and the Buddha.
His work resonates with vibrant colors, a characteristic which he credits to the influence of Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell who “had a way with primary and secondary colors.”
He lives and works on a former dairy farm in Westhampton where he has converted two outbuildings into studios/workshops. “I have amazing technology,” he says, citing computerized cutting tools that slice accurately through metal and wood. A third building acts as a showroom/gallery.
His works are collected by multiple NFL, NBA and MLB stars and such A-listers as Jack Nicholson, Howard Stern, Eddie Murphy and Woody Allen. Rapper Missy Elliott owns more than 25 pieces and country star LeAnn Rimes “has a few,” including a wall sculpture whose base is an abstract female face. Johnson seems genuinely perplexed at the popularity of his work at such a high level. “It’s the oddest thing,” he says.
Despite his brushes with the rich and famous, the artist remains humble. “I’m not trying to say much with my art,” he says. “I just want to make something beautiful.”