The enduring hope of artist Lance Johnson
The graffiti-inspired painter’s new exhibit, ‘Post No Ills,’ opens at Streetlight Guild today
Following the 2016 election of former President Donald Trump, Lance Johnson crafted a piece he dubbed “We the People,” a wild splash of graffiti-esque paint splatters interlaced with words and phrases such as “stand up,” “rise” and, of course, “we the people,” a phrase lifted from the preamble to the Constitution that the artist embraced as a reminder of who he believes ultimately holds the power.
“It was cathartic for me,” said Johnson, whose new exhibit, “Post No Ills,” opens today (Thursday, Sept. 2) at Streetlight Guild. The free exhibit is the first at the East Side arts space since it closed its doors in March 2020 amid the COVID-19 spread; reservations are required and all visitors must wear masks in the building regardless of vaccination status. “It was like, I can’t deal with the negativity of this, in my opinion, scumbag, so I had to fight it by celebrating the diversity of what could be.”
This pull toward hope is present in virtually all of the pieces produced by Johnson, who was born and raised in New York City and whose work captures the vitality, vibe and, on occasion, the chaos of those cluttered city streets. A graffiti-inspired artist, Johnson works with spray paint and paint markers, painting layer upon layer to create richly textured pieces that can mirror decades-old city walls. “You can see the history of the walls, and the texture of old graffiti covered by new,” said Johnson, who now resides in Columbus but still travels regularly to NYC. “There’s urban decay and torn posters, and it creates these textures.”
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Johnson was first drawn to the style as a child, describing graffiti-bedecked subway trains as mobile galleries, of sorts, which were far more accessible to the youngster than New York’s museums. “Museums were always outside of our possibility,” said Johnson, who grew up in the Parkside Houses in the Bronx. “They were always these huge institutions that weren’t welcoming, or that’s how it felt, and [graffiti] brought art to the people.”
Early on, Johnson internalized this gulf, believing a career in art to be out of reach. So when Johnson started crafting collages as a teenager, inspired by the work of Romare Bearden, whose art he discovered via a documentary on the Harlem Renaissance, he kept it entirely to himself. “[Bearden] would do these full cityscapes and images of jazz, and I was like, man, I could continue his legacy,” said Johnson, who clipped images from hip-hop magazines such as Vibe and The Source and used them to craft what he described as modern versions of Bearden’s urban landscapes. “But I would make them and put them away. I wasn’t showing you, because I wasn’t confident.”
Years later, however, Johnson returned to his teenage collages, which had been stashed in his mom’s house for six or seven years at that point, and he was struck by the ways in which the art still resonated within him. “And so I started dabbling again,” he said, “but this time I started showing people.”
In the years since, Johnson’s work has continued to shift and evolve, moving from collage-style works to graffiti-dense canvases and more recent explorations that transport these techniques to found objects such as desks, window frames and doors. Johnson has also begun painting atop quilt-like tapestries, which he creates by tearing pieces of fabric and then patching them back together, a technique he adopted after spending a month in Turkey in 2018 as part of a hip-hop cultural exchange.
“I just started to let loose and embrace more freedom in my work,” said the self-taught Johnson, who crafted one tapestry for the exhibit using burlap sacks given to him by the coffee roasters at Upper Cup. “And, again, I don’t know what not to do, so I just try everything. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
One aspect that has remained consistent in Johnson’s art, however, is the uplifting message woven into each piece, whether painted on canvas, wrought-iron bars or hand-torn fabric strips. It's a message the artist described as similarly entwined in his own DNA.
“When I work, I’m always thinking about kids in urban environments. And, for me, words are powerful, obviously, and words are inspirational, and what you put out into the universe is what comes back to you,” said Johnson, gesturing to a piece on the south wall of one of Streetlight’s galleries. “So I love the fact that a kid will come up [to a piece like this] and say, ‘Oh, I know that word: wisdom.’ And they engage with it, and it forces them to say these inspirational words.
“Sometimes we’re inundated with negativity in the urban community, and we need to embrace and celebrate where we live, and aspire to greater things. So whenever I create, those [inspirational] words are the foundation. I’m always thinking about young kids like myself growing up in the inner city, almost instructing them to embrace that celebration of our community.”