Claudette Johnson: Presence at the Courtauld (29 September 2023 - 14 January 2024)
The first monographic show at a major gallery of Claudette Johnson’s work, the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition is a thought-provoking tour through the two halves of the artist’s career. First coming to prominence in the 1980s whilst still an art student at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, Johnson’s depictions of Black women (whether real or from her imagination) reject the fetishisation and sexualisation that has so often been the context of the black body in Western art. Whether it be Gauguin’s perversions of Tahitian girls (which one walks past in the preceding room’s permanent collection in order to enter Johnson’s exhibition) or the African appropriation of Picasso’s demoiselles, non-white figures have never been out of place in the gallery setting but the context has been always been skewed in favour of the voyeur and exploiter. Johnson explains that even that flawed art of the past inspired her to become an artist, though she seeks to challenge and redefine it with her creations having their own agency rather than caving to stereotypes:
“They are some of the works that first introduced me to the idea of being an artist; they’re foundational, but they always seemed to exist in a space that excluded people like me… I imagine it will raise many interesting questions about what belongs in this space, who belongs here, and who can find a sense of belonging here, in this building.”
The first of the two exhibition rooms focuses on Johnson’s early works, including from when she was still studying. One such piece, And I Have My Own Business in This Skin (1982), draws a figure from Johnson’s imagination. In part a response to Picasso’s
Johnson stopped actively exhibiting her work in the early noughties whilst she was a teacher and raising her children. The second room in the exhibition features work exclusively from after 2015, when she began to create again after the hiatus, following encouragement from friend, artist and curator Lubaina Himid. In two self-portraits, Standing Figure with African Art (2018) and Figure with Figurine (2019) Johnson again reflects on African influence on contemporary Western art, this time though, on her own complex relationship as a Black European artist of African-Caribbean heritage born in England. In the former, Johnson’s figure stands against a Congolese Pende mask as an allusion to one of Picasso’s demoiselles with her bare stomach shown off as though trying to imitate the famous characters. In the latter, it is the African figurine holding its protruding belly and Johnson’s covered midriff is unprotected with her arm held above her head, as though falling away (or perhaps into) the preconceptions of a Black subject of a painting.
What was most interesting about Johnson’s collection of works were the pieces with areas left spare, in progress or untouched, allowing the viewer to complete the image. The best example of this in the exhibition is also her largest work: Reclining Figure (2017). The left side of the massive stretch of paper with red and blue swathes at the top and bottom bears a drawing of a woman’s head resting upon her arms in detail. The remaining three quarters of the artwork, depicting the fabric covering the body, falls to a small number of lines which, in another context, could easily represent a terrain with rivers flowing into the blue ocean, or a mountain range below a gouache sky. Johnson called this her ‘raggedy’ line, but it feels like much more. Lines becoming more than the sum of their parts and belonging.
Claudette Johnson: Presence, The Courtauld, 29 September 2023 - 14 January 2024