Review: Johnnie Winona Ross — Barry Whistler Gallery

[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]

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Johnnie Winona Ross’ work in DeepCreek Seeps, currently on exhibit at Barry Whistler Gallery, is suffused with a subtle luminosity that’s difficult to resist. The operative figura of Ross’ paintings is layer upon layer of oil on canvas that’s buffed into a deeply worked surface. His technique produces a warm and woven look with a distinctly burnished sheen and his stacking of color suggests an art of excavation. Ross’ paintings incorporate muted colors reminiscent of the artist’s native New Mexico as well as an organic aesthetic that celebrates the play of light and geography of the region.

That being said, this is art for minimalists. You feel as if you’re staring at bones. The images are horizontal striations that resemble long femurs or tectonic plates. Ross gives us simple, organic lines that don’t smack of whim or indulgence. Instead, they seem to evolve in much the same way natural erosion wears on rock in a long and slow redaction of nature.  Crossing the carefully articulated rows are vertical “drips” that interrupt the paintings’ primary linear motif in a well-executed mode that is brilliantly subtle. Ross’ work is pleasingly quiet when viewed directly and reflectively glossy when eyed from a steep angle.

This is work that’s ostensibly simple. But don’t take it at face value. In fact, this is art that warns us against clumsy impatience. It’s literally the product of long, careful hours and a gentle re-working of processes. In short, it’s worth slowing down to succumb to the lure of Ross’ geographical tour. Just as literary figures, such as Seamus Heany, are fascinated with bogs and their treasures, Ross brings us his own notion of thrilling geological prizes. They’re honed and purposely left deconstructed to show us wood frames and brass tacks. We’re given the skeleton and the surface and we’re asked to peer deeply, past the buffing and past the frame, into the deepest aesthetic and visceral considerations.

To push things a bit, these are contemporary cave paintings. Ross noted in 2005 that he was “fortunate to be in the same landscape that has inspired unknown Native American artists for thousands of years.”  Somehow that accretion of wisdom and acuity is still evident on Canton Street at Barry Whistler’s gallery. DeepCreek Seeps plays with the past and its text. But it also affords viewers an opportunity to find their own “con-text” and see a new landscape, redacted yet again for a new audience of one.

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