Field of Depth | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Field of Depth 

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When Through 10/14

Where Perimeter, 210 W. Superior

Info 312-266-9473

Janis Pozzi-Johnson's abstractions at Perimeter, each painted in hundreds of layers, seem to glow from within. The various levels of depth suggest the experience of looking into water--and water's a major inspiration for her. Pozzi-Johnson's paintings combine her interests in nature and spirituality and often suggest waterscapes or landscapes. The surfaces are subtly textured--in the nearly monochromatic Parched, earthen red paint is covered with irregular cracks so that it resembles the ground in the desert. But she also sees human metaphors in her work: "Parched is about the dryness of a soul awaiting restoration."

Pozzi-Johnson was raised as a churchgoing Methodist in a Pittsburgh suburb. When she was nine, a family drive through Georgia gave her a glimpse of rural poverty, and she says it was then that she began to think in terms of social justice--still a concern as important to her as art. In 1970, after a year in college, she joined Koinonia Farm, a Christian community working with the rural poor in Georgia. "I saw people who were living with rats in their mattresses," she says. "I would drive them to appointments and help them arrange to buy homes." Moving to Chicago in 1972 to attend the American Academy of Art, she began to paint and did street murals with Uptown kids; later she taught art workshops for the disabled. "I believe that the divine lives within each of us," she says. She began a portrait series of people who were developmentally and mentally challenged after graduating with an associate's degree in 1978. "I was trying to show their dignity by being very honest and straightforward," she says. "One man who was very shy sat in a corner rather than on a chair, and I painted him there."

In 1985 Pozzi-Johnson moved to Montana with her husband and their two children. Mountains were visible from almost everywhere in Missoula, and the family took hiking, rafting, and camping trips. She began painting landscapes, working in layers to achieve nuanced colors, and continued after the family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, in 1990. During a visionary moment in the Alps in 1993 she felt a "kind of glee," she says, "and my interior space filled with a particular kind of blue." She began a series called "Silence Restored": blue color-field paintings created by making many lively, "very energetic" marks and then partly covering them over. These works, she says, were like "visual sanctuaries."

The work at Perimeter is rooted in Pozzi-Johnson's blue color-field work and a dark abstract series she did after her daughter started having health problems that were difficult to diagnose. Another influence is Rodin--Pozzi-Johnson loves the way "his personal marks created undulations, and the way he worked with coloration, producing surfaces that breathe." After moving back to the Chicago area in 2000, where she lives today, she and her husband began sailing. Because on Lake Michigan, as opposed to most mountain lakes, the water meets the sky, "often you can't see where one ends and the other begins," she says. This became a visual metaphor for her: "Our days are about moving into the unknown."

To achieve the look she wants, Pozzi-Johnson often burnishes or abrades one layer of paint before adding another. The light blue at the top of Low Tide and the sandy colors below were inspired by beaches at low tide. She named Rattlesnake Creek after "one of my favorite places in the world," in Montana. Each of its four panels echoes a different rock color, from green to gold, while surface undulations suggest ripples. Invincible Summer (whose title comes from Camus) was painted in the last six months of her husband's life: he died of cancer about a year ago. The top is deep bronze, which dissolves into pale greens and golds and then near white at the bottom. Each part is equally radiant. "It's about how light and dark can coexist at the same time," she says, "and about accessing that kernel of the life force that you don't know you have."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz (portrait).

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