According to the Courtauld, this new show of mostly recent work by Claudette Johnson is a big deal. Despite exhibiting during the 1980s and ’90s (including, in 1985, at London’s ICA), Johnson, it argues, has been marginalised, as a “Black feminist artist”, within accounts of contemporary British art. So, by presenting her pictures beside the “Great Room”, festooned with masterpieces by the likes of Edouard Manet and Paul Gauguin (several of which, she says, “are almost part of my DNA”), the gallery believes it is righting a wrong.
“I never imagined I would be invited to show here,” says Johnson, whose monumental works on paper, executed in pastel and gouache, typically depict solitary black figures so big they exceed the oversized sheets on which they appear. In another quote by the artist, reproduced at the start, she describes the Courtauld as “a space that [hitherto] excluded people like me”. Hence, I suppose, that insistent title: “Presence”.
What’s the catch? That, amid the self-congratulation, the gallery risks over-hyping the work. Dorothy Price’s gushing catalogue essays, for instance, compare Johnson’s pictures (which the artist does not consider to be portraiture) to Titian’s Man with a Quilted Sleeve, and, on the flimsiest of pretexts, a famous fresco by Raphael.
There’s no doubt that Johnson’s art can be striking, even beautiful, or that her ability to capture people’s features, while subtly mustering, in monochrome, an array of skin tones, demands respect. Moreover, by recording black sitters so sensitively, and at such a scale, she is, as it were, redressing Western art, which traditionally has denied non-white individuals anything but subservient roles.
But her images aren’t without flaws. If the opening room feels studenty, that’s because the early drawings on display were made around or soon after Johnson’s graduation from Wolverhampton Polytechnic, in 1982.
The second, larger room, which contains 10 pieces produced since 2015, following a hiatus in her career, has greater impact; here, for instance, we find Johnson’s Reclining Figure (2017), which, though more than 8ft across, is as tranquil and dreamy as a far-off cloud. It appeared recently at Tate Britain, in the Life Between Islands exhibition, but now gains piquancy, given the proximity of Gauguin’s Nevermore (1897), which, to very different effect, depicts a teenager adopting a similar pose.
Yet, Johnson’s figures are rarely integrated successfully into any setting, and the bright blocks that often appear in her backgrounds (Ellsworth Kelly’s lemon-yellows, patchworks of teal and blue) can have a random, decorative quality. (Sometimes, Johnson’s decisions about which parts of her drawings to finish feel arbitrary, too.) The inclusion of scraps of masking tape to summon a sense of dynamism, by signalling that a drawing, despite appearing in a gallery, is still a work-in-progress, comes across as “arty” and mannered. Almost everyone, including her son, is depicted up-close, with a neutral expression, which suggests, to me, a limited range.
Moreover, Johnson occasionally works from “found images” (e.g. photographs in magazines), resulting in a distant effect; in one such example, Kind of Blue (2020), this is compounded by the uninspired title, alluding, obviously, to Miles Davis’s famous album. Johnson is a decent artist, no question; there’s a compelling stillness, even a quiet grandeur, to her work. But is she a great one? I’m not sure.
From Sept 29 until Jan 14; information: courtauld.ac.uk