Ray Johnson at Raven Row

Ray Johnson, Please Add To & Return
Raven Row (inaugural show)
28 Feb – 10 May

Inside the front foyer gallery director Alex Sainsbury is holding court around a table. He speaks about art in London, enthusiastic but serious. I am handed a catalogue-sized guide to the exhibition – free to take with me, I am told later. Unlike the average emerging young artist or cult favorite galleries in this area tend to feature, Raven Row’s inaugural show features the work of an established icon – Ray Johnson, the father of mail art and a minor god among collagists and pop artists. It is also Johnson’s first solo show in London. Though not talked about much today, he worked alongside Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Chuck Close, Roy Lichenstein, and others. The list varies depending on who is writing it, but the point is he was more famous than many of them at one point. He became more and more dissatisfied with the New York art scene and eventually stopped exhibiting. In 1995, he backstroked out to sea and drowned, and many of the collages being shown here were only discovered in his house afterwards, finished but unseen by the public.

Raven Row1

Visual art can be seen as the filling-in of a space – a canvas, a video screen, a garden, but also a room. Whereas a canvas or screen can be completely subsumed by the art they contain – and become – a room always remains a room, separate from the works it may contain. The gallery space, then, inevitably affects the way we perceive the work it contains. No space is completely blank. Opinions will differ on what the ideal space looks like, but it seems to me it should allow the audience to, if desired, focus completely on the art and so disconnect from the world outside and at the same time contextualize the art in a way that the audience comes to understand that it nevertheless is a part of that outside world. In such a space, the gallery rooms and the art revitalize each other. [This is the idea behind the name of this blog. The sawdust is a remnant of the earthy origins of the creation of the art as well as the creation of the space in which to present it. But just a remnant; a bit of dust that will not distract from whatever those creations are now.]

The eighteenth-century building I used to see being scraped and drywalled and painted every day around the corner has turned out to be exactly that space I have envisioned. Raven Row is a large, serious, and striking gallery. The building is Grade I listed (on par with Buckingham Palace et al.), but sat vacant for a decade; not until people began working on it regularly did I even notice its ornate windows and doorframes.

Raven Row4

Straight ahead and down the stairs are two rooms. The first is interesting because though collages hang on all four walls, each wall’s works are slightly different. The wall adjacent to the stairs features collages with text and photographs, playful. The next, clockwise, is much more impressive. The collages are simpler, but the design and composition more complex; less random and, thus, their artfulness more in evidence. The other walls are a mixture of this photo-and-text pop art or abstract handcrafted-puzzle look, except that on the fourth wall clockwise from the stairs black drawings are added in behind the collage. These are slightly later and certainly the most interesting and attractive.

There are more impressive collages elsewhere in the gallery, but the main formal distinctions between them can be seen in this room. Johnson’s collages feature raised images or colors on cardboard, the edges usually sanded down so the distinction between each piece is emphasized and the texture of the whole more varied. These blocks seem like the letters of a printing press, and in fact we are told that Johnson would sometimes change pieces of the collages around between shows. The pieces are James Dean, Shirley Temple, old postcards, dollar bills, French poets, magazine, catalogue, and newspaper clippings. It is pop art in the best and strictest sense, taking images out of mass-produced daily, modern life and recombining them in ways that are completely original, undeniably artistic. It is intensely modern – unconcerned, or so it seems, with lineage or posterity. Each collage is self-contained in its shadow box and each, again in contradistinction to a lot of gallery works, stands alone just as well as within the context of the exhibition. There is only one collage that uses the frame directly as a part of the work, the pieces resting in a pile against the glass, but for all of them the frame seems to form an inviolable and completing border between one work and the next.

Detail of a collage, showing texture and layering

Detail of a collage, showing texture and layering

Raven Row is four stories. There are two main lower ground floor rooms with collages on the walls, including the ones mentioned above, and display cases of small mailings in the middle of the rooms. The mailings are mostly postcard sized – clippings, quotes, poems, anecdotes, often combined. What is striking looking at these is that they would be less possible today. Aside from radio and TV, culture in the 1960s and 70s when most of these were done was examined and transmitted through magazines and newspapers, and there is a permanence to these printed words and images that does not exist for our main medium of transmission today – mercurial lines and pictures on a computer screen. A thing on paper is somehow more true, more official, and so more can be read into it. A photo clipped from a magazine carries a potential for parody and the uncanny that one printed out from a website just cannot.

Untitled (Ray Johnson is a dumdum), 1963

Untitled (Ray Johnson is a dumdum), 1963

Still on the lower ground floor, there is a small room of prints and fliers just outside the bathroom. It is interesting to see here the way in which Johnson wanted his work to be presented and promoted to the general public.

There is an aspect of performance to all Johnson’s pieces, a lack of seriousness that nonetheless does not lack intentionality or self-awareness. On the ground floor, in addition to the foyer, is another room of collages and “motico” mailings. Here is Elvis and James Dean, but also more personal reflections of the art world and his social circle in New York.

Elvis #2 (1956-7)

Elvis #2 (1956-7)

James Dean (Lucky Strike), 1957

James Dean (Lucky Strike), 1957

Upstairs is a room with a dilapidated fireplace that smells of urine and sawdust. It is upstairs that you really begin to appreciate the building as a building and you begin to imagine people living there – the eighteenth century silk merchants who originally lived there or even the way in which the space, packed with his collages, must slightly resemble Johnson’s Long Island house. The floorboards are sanded down to a professional smoothness, but some nails still stick up a bit and the character is left unrefined. Unfortunately all this slightly overshadows the collages in these first floor rooms – some of Johnson’s last – though it is probably as much due to having already seen so many collages downstairs as the building’s distracting charm. In the mirror above the fireplace I push down a curl of hair that is sticking up. There are three fireplaces – unlit – on the first floor and another several on the next.

Raven Row3
The building does far more good than harm, as the uniqueness of the rooms, though unified in style and color, ultimately prevents this one-man show from growing monotonous. Most of the credit for this still has to go to Johnson, though, who not only continually reworked old pieces and created new ones, but at the same time was constantly sending out his mailings.

Johnson’s art was his life. However ambivalent or even directly opposed to it he was, he was completely embroiled in the New York art world. His friends were predominantly artists; his school life, his professional life were all in art. There is an impressive consistency to the way in which he continued to make and continued to mail his art. He moved out of the city, he stopped exhibiting, but he never hesitated in constantly drawing on the everyday for his collages, and his public persona, even in reclusion – because of its reclusion – was always an artistic element adding to the effect of his work. “The thing is, he didn’t really change. This looks exactly like 1965 or whatever,” a girl remarks, on the second floor now. But this is not exactly fair. There is a consistency in his work – and the works in this show have been chosen to maintain a unified consistency – but there are also clear variations and evolutions.

There are three rooms along the front of the building on the second floor. Each contains mail art, but it is different than the mailings on the lower ground floor. These are standard letter-size pieces of mostly printed, original artworks, rather than collages of clippings. A lot of them are supposed to speak to his dissatisfaction with the art world that was evident in his isolation at the time of these mailings, but they are playful and very much alive. They seem as engaged with art and society as ever and the low hum of popular culture underlies and contextualizes them all.

Untitled (Not Nothing), undated

Untitled (Not Nothing), undated

Ray Johnson's History of Video Art, 1978

Ray Johnson's History of Video Art, 1978

Both the building and the work are serious in their professionalism and historical importance, but are able nonetheless to maintain a refreshing airiness. There is a general sense of something new being discovered in the old. One mailing on the second floor features a drawing of the front edge of a toilet with a line leading out from it. “Dear Bill,” it reads, “I have sat on this toilet and looked down at the floor every morning for the last twenty years and only today did I notice the line in the linoleum leading from it to the wall. It is 38 inches.”     – M.O. Berger


Further reading:
Interview with Alex Sainsbury: http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/30483/alex-sainsbury-on-raven-row/
Interview with Ray Johnson (1978): http://www.jpallas.com/hh/rj/DAMintervw-RayJ.html

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