Oakland gallery Johansson Projects presents surreal, sci-fi visions

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Catching a momentary escape from the Art Murmur craze on 23rd Street, gallery goers entered into the Johansson Projects. The gallery’s intimate layout with its low, moss-covered ceiling offered a welcome contrast to First Friday’s sensory overload. But in the show that opened last Friday, the art adorning the white walls provided more than relief; it transported the viewer into distant worlds, far removed from the physical day-to-day.

The current exhibit, “Hymns to the Moon,” features the works of Robert Minervini and Tadashi Moriyama, whose works transcend the world we see, touch, taste and feel. These acclaimed artists depict two parallel, futuristic universes, independent from both Earth 2012 and from each other. Minervini presents a series of otherworldly landscape paintings, while Moriyama shows paintings, sculptures and an animated video depicting scenes of jumbled chaos populated by unrestricted subconscious.

The seamless progression from a pleasurable escape to a hellish one ties the two artists’ disparate styles together. Both from Philadelphia, the artists had never met but have been communicating via e-mail. The artists kept each other in mind when creating their works in the last several months.

Minervini has removed overt suggestions of human’s presence — furniture, flower arrangements, books, bongs and classical sculptures — that appear in his earlier works in favor of smoothly rendered scenes of open nature. His compositions combines wild flora and futuristic architectural structures.

He creates the true sense of escape with ambiguity in time and place. “If I were to make a painting of a specific place,” he said, “I would be making a painting that’s like a portrait. I’m not really interested in doing that.” Minervini might begin with a plan, but the creative process inevitably leads him in unexpected directions, and the compositions, he says, often grow from there. “By picking and choosing different things from memory, or from photographs I take, I’m able to construct these places that hopefully feel familiar and are poignant to the viewer, but also leave room for interpretation,” he explained.

“I like to put the painting somewhere between something that’s believable and credible and something that is more unbelievable or a little more supernatural,” Minervini said. Helping to achieve a supernatural look, the painting’s lighting suggests dawn or dusk, but also appears artificial.

As his hands gesture towards the foggy horizon line of one of his paintings, Minervini explained how he uses spray paint to create the atmospheric effect. He begins with a spray painted gradation for the background, adds layers of stenciling and finally spray paints another layer over that. The result is a palpably thick atmosphere, like the swirling gases of a faraway planet.

Minervini’s scale is all consuming, reflecting his background as a mural painter. The geometric planar structures, meticulously constructed in two-point perspective, appear colossal in size. Although the canvases themselves are not enormous, each scene extends for miles. The human figures he inserts are so miniscule that they are hardly discernible. Like an explorer gazing into a foggy abyss, the viewer can stand close and look in on the new world.

There is a profound calmness that rushes over each canvas, creating a space in which one longs to dwell indefinitely. Building on the dream-like limbo Minervini creates, Moriyama takes the viewer deeper into the depths of an apocalyptic hell. He tangles together seemingly unconnected elements like planets, vines, goddesses, water and mountains into a chaotic mess.

The paintings are acrylic and painstakingly outlined in black ink. Each features the repeating element of brightly colored blocks that resemble Lego pieces. These blocks reappear in all of Moriyama’s paintings, sculptures and video.

Moriyama worked in furniture early in his career and “has the hand to make 3D,” as he says, but this is his first time formally working in sculpture. Each takes elements from his paintings and pops them into three dimensions. For example, one stabs a stylized tree branch through a globe and sprinkles the objects with the building block pieces.

In working with these blocks, Moriyama is telling a story of building, rebuilding and destruction. The story is brought to life in his animated video projected on the wall. Formally trained in video and surrounded by anime and manga growing up in Japan, he uses animation to thread together his painted canvases. Incorporating sight, sound and movement, the artist pushes viewers towards a further state of unreality.

“If you see Oakland downtown, you see these square glass buildings start to take over Victorian houses,” Moriyama said. Easy to mass produce, the Lego blocks represent the construction of a cookie-cutter society, which Moriyama looks to destroy. One scene shows a giant hand repeatedly clicking on a keyboard “Copy, Paste,” and then in a subsequent frame, a brain-shaped blob with limbs munches on the building blocks.

What began as a quiet descent into a surreal world with Minervini’s paintings, grows into a viscerally uncomfortable plunge in Moriyama’s works. Together, the artists have created an escape into a bottomless void far removed from reality.
Anna Carey is the lead visual art critic.