Detroit’s Lester Johnson’s Solo Exhibit, Clarion Calls

By K.A. Letts

There’s a lot going on within and among the vibrantly colored and luxuriously patterned cylindrical components that comprise most of Detroit artist Lester Johnson’s solo exhibit, Clarion Calls. This thoughtful mini-retrospective of the artist’s work traces his visual journey as an African American contemporary artist from the 1970’s until today. Each individual cylinder within each composition plays in syncopated rhythm with its neighbor, held in rigid suspension like staccato drumbeats.

Incorporating musical and African influence

The musical analogy is one that Johnson welcomes; in particular, he draws a comparison between his work and the artistry of contemporary jazz musicians. Phyllis Johnson, the artist’s sister and spiritual advisor, wrote this introduction for the show: “[His] work shifts between different tones and designs, using the bold semantics of color to mimic the sound of instruments interacting, locking and unlocking in an exchange of ideas.”

One of the earliest of the 19 works in Clarion Calls, the seminal Passione (1986), shows the artist already confidently at work within his self-invented idiom of vertical, scepter-like forms, referencing the staff of authority wielded by African royalty. Composed of hand-molded and vibrantly colored cast paper, this early piece hints at motifs and methodologies to come. The cylinders are physically connected, a compositional strategy that the artist discards in later works, instead preferring discrete elements arranged side-by-side.

Bemsha Swing (1991) consists of only four rods but, by the time this piece was created, Johnson’s vocabulary and creative program was already entirely in place. He composed this early work using African mud cloth, twine, bits of woven braid and appliqued buttons and beads in a way that suggests contrapuntal harmonies. With Bermsha Swing, Johnson has created a visual analog for music that recalls the elegance and earthiness of contemporary jazz.

A couple of artworks in Clarion Calls depart from the rod motif that characterizes most of Johnson’s art practice. Two kimono-shaped pieces, Mandela and Nefertiti, both completed in 2009, call attention to the figurative and historical references in Johnson’s work, and hint at contrasting male and female principles. The t-shaped kimonos feature scepter-like elements which rest within the heart of each piece, while allowing the patterned African fabric of the surround to take center stage. The black and white fabric of Mandela depicts a war-like narrative, with large-scale, grimacing figures on each sleeve, one holding a machete, as they aggressively face off. By contrast, in Nefertiti, the kimono pattern is geometric, with brightly hued rods at its heart. The colorful contrast suggests hidden inner life.

An evolving style, without limitations

The year 2017 finds Johnson at work on compositions that are more ambitious in scale than his previous, more intimate pieces. In Let My Children Hear Music, he uses black and white printed paper to map out the way forward. The adoption of digital photography into his art practice allows the constituent parts of the cylinders to be repeated and re-arranged, making the creation of work that is larger and more ambitious feasible; these newer works are symphonies, where his earlier pieces were jazz trios. What Johnson loses in intimacy he gains in grandeur.

Lester Johnson, Passione, 1986, 100% cotton handmade cast paper, 43”h x 43”w
Lester Johnson, Passione, 1986, 100% cotton handmade cast paper, 43”h x 43”w

His 2019 Rio Carnival reveals the opportunities and limitations of his newest work. The installation, 15 tubes with brightly colored sections of printed African cloth, photographed, laminated and repeated at intervals, fills and activates the wall. One can imagine even larger iterations of rods, which at this scale begin to suggest landscapes or groups of figures. The smoothly finished surfaces of the constituent parts emphasize hue and pattern at the expense of texture; the effect is beautiful and sophisticated, but occasionally risks looking slick.

Johnson, an emeritus professor of fine arts at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, is clearly an artist of talent and experience who has achieved freedom of personal expression within his chosen, strictly defined formal limitations. The individuality he displays in Clarion Calls points to continued and amplified future creative output.

Clarion Calls is on view until August 24 in the Rotunda Gallery in Building 18 of the North Campus Research Center at the
University of Michigan. For more information, go to:

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