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Modern Art Oxford opens an exhibition of works by Claudette Johnson
Installation view.

OXFORD.- One of the most arresting figurative artists working in Britain today, Claudette Johnson (b. 1959, Manchester, UK) creates larger than life studies that are both intimate and powerful. Modern Art Oxford’s exhibition of her work, entitled Claudette Johnson: I Came to Dance, is her first solo show at a major institution in almost three decades and includes approximately 30 paintings and drawings in pastel, paint, ink and charcoal.

Throughout her career, Johnson has continually questioned the boundaries imposed upon black women. Musing that “a very small twisted space is offered”, Johnson works from life, inviting her sitters to “take up space in a way that is reflective of who they are”. This empathetic approach is rooted in Johnson’s deep sense of purpose. She asserts: “I do believe that the fiction of ‘blackness’ that is the legacy of colonialism, can be interrupted by the encounter with the stories that we tell about ourselves”.

These stories are told through the display of works from the 1980s to new work created specially for this show. In one of the earliest, (Untitled) I Came to Dance (1982), the single dramatic line that cuts through the composition was created by the artist as she moved her body in one gliding movement, stretching from the top of the paper to its base. Johnson frequently depicts both herself and people she knows well. For Trilogy (1982-86) the three sitters, who include photographers Brenda Agard and Ingrid Pollard, were invited to position their bodies in order to take up the whole space. Each interpreted the artist’s requests in their own way becoming active collaborators in the work’s creation. They gaze directly at the viewer, engaging us in their rich interior lives.

During the early 1980s, while studying Fine Art at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, Johnson became a prominent member of the BLK Art Group alongside Marlene Smith, Keith Piper, Eddie Chambers and Donald Rodney. These artists came together to explore and represent their own experiences. They also organised several exhibitions of their work and the First National Black Arts Conference, which took place in 1982. It was here that Johnson led a series of pioneering discussions on black feminist art. The presentation of her work and discussion of her encounters with black subjects in the Western canon was one of the most heated debates on the day.

More than 30 years later, Johnson’s Standing Figure with African Masks (2018; above) demonstrates her complex relationship with early Western modernism. Her central figure holds our gaze while she stands alongside other figures that seem to recall Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; one of the most well-known examples of an artist referencing African symbolism.

Often drawn from life and centred on a single figure, the fluid lines and compelling sensitivity of Johnson’s works have achieved an enthusiastic following amongst her peers and younger, emerging artists alike. This rare opportunity to see a significant body of her work is eagerly anticipated.

Recent exhibitions include Claudette Johnson, Hollybush Gardens, London (2017); No Colour Bar: Black British Art in Action 1960-1990, Guildhall Art Gallery, London (2015-16); Thin Black Line(s), Tate Britain (2012). Other previous exhibitions included Transforming the Crown: African, Asian and Caribbean Artists in Britain 1966-1986, Royal Festival Hall, London, and The Caribbean Cultural Centre, The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York (1997); In This Skin: Drawings by Claudette Johnson, Black Art Gallery, London (1992); The Image Employed: The Use of Narrative in Black Art, Cornerhouse, Manchester (1987); The Thin Black Line, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (1986); Into the Open: New Paintings, Prints and Sculptures by Black Contemporary Artists, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield (1984); Black Women Time Now, Battersea Arts Centre, London (1983); Five Black Women Artists, Africa Centre, London (1983).

Johnson’s work is also in the collections of Tate, The Rugby Art Gallery, Mappin Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Arts Council England.

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