Poppy Johnson - February 1978


She is crouching over her pool (a child’s wading pool, round, about six feet in diameter, with rigid, not inflated sides) with an old strainer, her arm moving in graceful arcs, scooping out flecks of dried paint. The water ripples and sets the light dancing on its surface and then is still as a mirror, still as a window, waiting.

When she was twelve she wrote a story as narrated by a fish named Zollo. The fish tells the story of a young girl, crippled by polio, who can move in the water although not on land. First she takes underwater photographs but then invents a method of doing underwater waterproof drawings. The girl hopes to sell a few of them and become famous.

She mixes a dilute solution of oil paint in a little jar stirring with a brush. Her dancer’s body paces around the small pool, her painter’s eyes stare fixedly at the surface and then she kneels and pours the paint on to the water. She pours, drips, splatters, pushes, arranges the thin slick of color on the surface of the water.

She is in Paris, a great city for young painters, wandering by the banks of the Seine, idly browsing in bookstalls, leafing through old books, gleaning more information from the beautiful marbled end-papers than from the printed texts in a foreign tongue.

Perhaps now she mixes a second color in another jar and pours it also into the pool, or some metallic powders. Again she pushes and rearranges the liquid on liquid, the floating particles sliding and bumping on the surface of the disturbed water. She takes a long comb and rakes it through the water with easy gestures (a daydreaming mermaid absently combing the hair of her reflection).

There are things she has taught herself empirically: how the water behaves with the paint at different temperatures; how different paints react; and solutions and dilutents, all kinds of particular technical information. But even with this silent skill, the deft movements, there is the important sense of the activity that it is child’s play, lunatic alchemy, river priestess ritual.

The painting is made. It shimmers there on the surface of the pool. The task now is to catch its reflection, its mirror image, and fix it into that permanence of which the painting on the water is the antonym.

When she was a very young woman, it was discovered that despite an early childhood operation, she did not have binocular vision, almost no peripheral vision on one side, and a lack of depth perception. She went to school with mostly four year olds and did exercises and wore red and green glasses and relearned how to see. She still probably does not see “normally.”

She takes a sheet of white paper and holding it by one corner slowly drags it in a curve across the painting on the water and gently drops even the corner so she is touching nothing, holding on to nothing; just hovering over a blank white rectangle floating face down in a dirty pool.

To enter one of these paintings is to fall as suddenly as Alice and the experience the same irrelevance of personal scale. Some creature equipped with enormous eyes and membraneous wings is free falling, gliding, swooping, soaring through space. The space is always enormous but in some paintings (POND, GROUND WATER, MOSS FALL) it seems the enormity of a few square inches to a creature the size of a bacillus, and in others (MOUNTAIN SLIDE, AIRLIFT, ASTRODOME) the respective enormity of mountains to a condor, earth to a satellite, nebulae to a star.

She picks the paper out of the pool and lays it down to dry. The entire process is repeated, several times for each sheet of paper, many papers for each painting.

“The aerial angle produces a multiple viewpoint also found in Chinese Sung landscapes, where atmospheric depth was eliminated, but different perspectives were used convincingly to impart all the vital information about each landform and its spatial envelope.”   Lucy Lippard.

The papers all finished and dried, she starts the next step of the process. She has already made a drawing of the structure of the painting, a structure in these recent works of triangles, truncated, fractured, crystalline triangles and corners. Now she must cut and piece, taking a corner of this sheet and transposing it to another section, moving, rearranging, matching, locating, organizing.

The numerous layers of paint do not create anything like an impasto effect, an awareness pushed at you of paint as paint. Each layer is thin and transparent so that the effect is of always hovering above what you are seeing and looking through layers, layers of water with particles suspended at different depths or layers of clouds or gases.

The triangles (A, Aleph the summoner, the beginning, the mountain, the upward-reaching; V, the vulva, going down to the earth, outstretched to the sky, balancing upon its point) are an internal structural decision, growing out of, breaking with her previous use of a border. The border was useful and resonant, connecting her work to Tibetan painting, manuscript illuminations, formalist concerns, but for the energy of these new paintings it would be too much a framing, a limiting device. Now she is expanding from the center with no limits.