This month, the once acid-dropping deadhead-turned art dealer, Jack Hanley, dazzles his gallery loyalists with the instable, meticulous, confusing and populist art of Brooklyn-based Johnny Abrahams. Far out, Jack! With 15 large-scale works currently on view, Johnny takes his dimensional black and white line paintings to, how should I say, new dimensions. Puff on this:
I first wrote about Johnny’s work for Frieze London last year, where crowds gathered to cock their heads and photograph the jumping lines on the paintings before them. A few months later, he graces an American audience with all new work in his first solo-show here in New York. Groovy, Johnny-boy!
His work is filled with dualities; it is both complex and superficial. It is witty but elementary, teasing our optical perceptions with honest deceit. The 2-D wall mounted paintings appear kinetic, stirring up movement and dimension only by the eye’s inability to rest or focus. The varying compositions in each piece are essentially collections of simple lines that use negative and positive space to forge pattern and suspensions of disbelief. “How does it doo that??”
I got a chance to catch up with Johnny at his Brooklyn studio. Located in the very miserable Williamsburg (unless condo’s and aging hipsters pushing strollers turn you on), his building is a miraculous bubble in the hyper-gentrified sad skeleton of what probably was once a pretty cool neighborhood. The doorman was a kind and, how should I say…an odor plush gentleman who lives under the stairs. He slumped over his chair watching a rerun of Cheers (note that for later) on a TV resting upon a milk carton, waving me up the long concrete staircase as he shuffled his feet.
Johnny greeted me looking like a survivor of the cannibal Andes flight disaster, bundled up in a snowsuit, beanie, scarf and boots. With no heat in his studio, here is a pic of him shoving a blow dryer in his crotch to warm himself up, which he seemed to enjoy quite a bit:
Johnny: Want to try?
Me: Umm, maybe later.
He fixed us hot toddies between sessions of letting paint dry on a new experiment with gradient color patterns.
Me: I must say, the colors are awful (a nauseous mixture of red, blue, yellow and accidental green), but like a bad movie you got see it to the end, could turn around…
Johnny: Yeah I know, it’s a piece of shit so far though.
He showed me where he slept, inside a table using his own paintings as shelter. I thought it was romantic! To live in the stomach, or rectal cavity, of your own artwork. How unsuccessfully bohemian, and in a studio space that was 37 degrees, nonetheless.
Johnny has a soothing way of speaking, maybe it’s his tone of voice, but I imagine him reading for a book on tape or quietly telling a story to a classroom of temperamental primary-school children. I can almost hear him say to them, “Keep calm, kids, shhh, everybody relax.” He laughs a lot, talks about a recent pill overdose and puts down his own artwork, or maybe more accurately his future. “Shhh, keep calm, Johnny” I think to myself.
And I think he told me not to tell anybody but he pees in cups, in fact he did it twice as I sat there on the other side of the studio hugging his heater. And boy was it dark! Nearly overflowed.
Me: Have you ever drank piss sexually?
Johnny: Twice by accident. Once was a TON. I was super hammered and peed in an empty bottle of bourbon just before blacking out. When I woke up, I blindly reached for a bottle and drank the whole thing. It was almost entirely clear from drinking so much and tasted so refreshing, exactly like cold water. When I realized what it was I couldn’t stop throwing up.
Yikes! I traded some pee stories of my own, mine not so accidental, and we shared Mexican food I had left over from lunch. I offered him some poppers but he was already high from inhaling (not purposely…at least I don’t think) spray-paint all day from his new project. I first met him at an opening in San Francisco several years ago at which his over-tailored suit created the effect of a credit-card machine on his ass, and I remember those being in his words, not mine. That night, he said, he was asked to do a 3-way but was sweating so profusely from his tight wool suit that he reluctantly declined. “I regret that to this day,” he said.
Me: What’s next artistically?
Johnny: To visit the grave Carl Sagan.
Me: When was the first time you jerked off?
Johnny: It was to Kirstie Allie from Cheers, and my orgasm was…dry.
Cheers again! What are the odds? Well, cheers to you, Mr. Abrahams.
Johnny Abrahams’s solo show runs through February 24 at the Jack Hanley Gallery on 327 Broom Street in New York City; so get with it and GET DIZZY.
Contributed by Dean Dempsey.