Kansas City-based artist exhibits drawings, paintings with ‘The Spaces Between’ at Penn College

“The Spaces Between,” an exhibit of large-scale figurative drawings and paintings by Kansas City-based artist Melanie Johnson, is on display through Dec. 7 at The Gallery at Penn College, 1 College Ave.

A Meet the Artist Reception will be held 4:30-6:30 p.m. Nov. 16, with a gallery talk at 5:30 p.m. The gathering and exhibit are open and free of charge to the public.

Working from observation and composite sources, Johnson seeks to arrive at an image that is unflinchingly candid in physical representation, yet psychologically evasive. Narrative is employed loosely in her work, and she draws primarily on what is familiar as a catalyst for making. The imagery gives form to a dissonant accrual of lived experience, family histories and anecdotes, appropriated iconography and the acting out of roles both obligatory and imagined.

Surface, palimpsest and indexical histories of making are meaningful in Johnson’s process. She wants the physical drawing or painting to encapsulate imagery representative of a lived moment as well as the history of its own manifestation. The work should conjure a habitat that has one foot in reality and the other in a hazy internal state that evokes the slipperiness of memory, longing, and a disquieting curiosity — about an object, a body, an unexpected relationship, or a state of being.

Johnson received a master of fine arts in painting from Indiana University and is an associate professor of art and design at the University of Central Missouri. She has exhibited regionally, nationally and internationally.

Most recently, Johnson was an artist-in-residence at the Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Residency Program in Kansas City, Missouri. She lives in a suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, with her son and many pets.

Growing up, Johnson was quiet and socially awkward. Drawing was a way to keep herself entertained, but it also had a kind of social currency.

“There was something to being the one that other kids would ask to draw a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or some other action figure,” she said. “Mostly I just wanted to draw animals.”

When Johnson was a little older, her best friend’s mother was the high school art teacher.

“He and I were more interested in riding bikes or going to the movies, but his mom was always gently encouraging me to take art classes and making sure I had access to extracurricular opportunities, or that I was just able to see art in person,” she said. “As a teenager, I got a little more serious about my interests in art. I took some classes at the Kansas City Art Institute and several classes in high school. I really didn’t intend to become an artist, however.”

When she got to college, Johnson was interested in a few different majors initially, but she kept taking art classes until she declared studio art as her major. During a period of self-doubt, she dropped out of the program and considered becoming a veterinarian like her father. But after a semester, she was back in the studio.

“There were two undergraduate faculty mentors to whom I am still grateful for their support, and for modeling the life of a working artist and making that seem possible – something I don’t forget as an educator,” she said. “I also fell in love with art history and museums during my time as a student and was fortunate enough to study in Italy for a stint, which was transformative.”

By the time she graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in painting, graduate school seemed like an obvious next step. She received her master of fine arts in painting from Indiana University in 2006. She’s been a working artist and educator ever since.

Johnson’s training is in painting but drawing plays an equal role in her studio practice. Her work is mostly large in scale and almost always deals with the human figure.

“The very large drawings have a theatrical feel to them because of the scale and format,” she said. “The paintings tend to vary a little more but I’m always conscious of the psychology of scale of the human figure.”

For The Gallery at Penn College exhibition, Johnson has paintings and drawings from three different bodies of work. The body of paintings revolve around the themes of sleep and inaccessibility.

There are three large-scale narrative charcoal drawings. The narratives are derived from several different sources: personal experience, Welsh mythology, pre-Raphaelite themes, contemporary poetry and borrowed iconography.

“They’re meant to unfold as a story through the investigation of multiple visual anecdotes,” Johnson said. “They engage the viewer frontally but indirectly, akin to events taking place on a stage. But all are very personal in one manner or another.”

“The smaller drawings are investigations in self-portraiture,” she said. Some are direct, but mostly they explore using myself as a kind of character to explore relationships and human interactions both physical and psychological.”

For Johnson, inspiration for her artwork comes from many directions. Art historical sources as well as contemporary figurative painting always influence what she is doing in the studio. Mostly, her source material comes from her daily life, her family, travels and what she is reading at the time.

“I keep a long-term, eclectic notebook that’s part journal, part sketchbook, part book of lists,” she said. “It’s sloppy and sometimes embarrassingly silly and it’s only meant for personal consumption. Often, I find unexpected intersections — sometimes even years apart and sometimes viable subject matter — come from those minor or silly entries. It just has to percolate for a while.”

When Johnson is making her work, it’s most often a way of navigating her own head, and not thinking much about an audience for a long time.

“I think about making the work as being involved in a kind of dialogue that unfolds over a long period,” she said. “The history of the dialogue is present in the buildup of marks and the negotiation of moving things around and arriving at specific resolutions, as well as in the imagery itself.”

The scale of Johnson’s work is very intentional, as it both confronts the viewer and invites a closer look.

“I’m always intrigued by how viewers interact with the work — do they get close up, does the work require some distance?” she said.

Johnson recalled an experience when a fellow artist pointed out that there were still eraser shavings on the surface of one of her drawings at an exhibition opening. She felt like he had interrupted her in the studio rather than viewed the piece in a gallery.

“I was a little self-conscious about that, but he had to get his nose up to the drawing to see that and that made me happy,” she said. “I do really want to the viewer to experience both the image and the process of its production. It’s like a little invitation to see how the narrative unfolds.”