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Describing his personal initiation as an artist, Martin Johnson said:
On December 10, 1974, I gave birth to a painting onto which I scratched the word 'FOR' on the bottom because I felt that everything was connected and that I was experiencing an expanded sense of infinity in which everything in the universe was FOR everything else -- and freely given from the heart. FOR seemed to mean FOR US. Then I saw the words FOR IS FORCE FOR US. The word FOR, when broken down, is a symbol for composition: FEEL-FRAME, ORDER and RHYTHM. When they join together, I make my art. FOR leads to poetry and is the power behind every poem.
UNIS is also an important word that connotes the object and the process combined. An abbreviation for UNISON, it also stands for UN-IS -- both becoming something and changing at the same time.
My drawings have always been very layered. One of my teachers called them my "emographs" -- meaning "emotional graphics." My sculptural constructions all come from my EMOGRAPHS. They are the connection of points in space with lines.
The Smile that recurs in my work is an expression of my feeling when I begin to sense the unknown. At those moments I feel like laughing.*
[* Martin Johnson in conversation with Ray Kass, ForInstance Gallery, Richmond, Va., May 15, 2011.]
Martin Johnson’s visual art works represent dynamic glimpses of his stream of consciousness. His multi-layered works, often in shallow relief, become grottoes for his furtively inspirational and ironic words and images. Maze-like webs in which verbal and visual images, ambiguous grinning lips floating amidst scripted broken puns, are his personal metaphysics-- an abiding questioning voice tinged with alchemical magic that either hits the bull's eye or forgets the target. In fact, Johnson says that “mysticism” means
"missed his ism."
Born in New Jersey and raised in Richmond, Va., Johnson graduated from Virginia Tech’s College of Architecture and Urban Studies in 1974 with no intention to become an architect. He went on to pursue an M.F.A. degree in Studio Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they offered him a scholarship and an ample studio. His artwork at that time touched on many of the significant issues that would soon emerge in the Neo-Expressionist art world of the early 1980s, particularly the emerging stylistic characteristics of self-taught and Outsider art. Johnson wove words and patterns together in a manner that expresses a genuine kinship with outsider artists. Like many self-taught artists, the basic strategy and style of his ongoing work has remained consistent with that of his earliest pieces. You pause to wonder whether he actually learned anything in school. Or, like other notable “outsiders,” such as the New York City El Barrio street-artist, James De La Vega, who received a scholarship to Cornell, did he simply receive the benefit of lots of time and space to work?
Johnson graduated from Chapel Hill in 1977 and moved to New York City. Over the next decade, he became a well-known figure in the New York art scene. But in 1987, following a string of sell-out exhibitions at the Phyllis Kind Gallery and major reviews in important art magazines, Johnson abruptly packed up his family and left New York to take over his family’s business in Virgin