Al Johnson’s Interpretivism Takes Him Where No Artist Has Gone Before

By Patricia Andrews-Keenan

Artist Al Johnson just purchased a VR headset and spent upwards of two hours immersed in the tech. Not a big leap from the little boy who, even before he could walk, was so consumed with drawing trucks that his Mother rightfully predicted he would grow up to be an artist. Art, says Johnson, is visual healing. The mix of colors and shapes in his abstract expressionistic "soul-based" works are intended to allow the viewer to interpret what they see and most importantly what they feel.

Johnson's exhibition "Through the Spirit" is currently showing as part of the Harlem Fine Arts Show 2021 Virtual Art Show. His mixed media works on canvas showcase two decades of his work in a style of abstract expressionism he has dubbed "Interpretivism." His 'interpretivism' has many sides. The oil on canvas 'Crystal World' is layered in multiple shades of blue, darkened with black.

The artist says he was in a dark place when creating the piece, but painting has a way of lifting him up. It is the polar opposite to his multi-media canvas "Devine Destinies", where the riotous colors, predominately the life-affirming color yellow, is a tribute to the birth of his grandson on New Year's Day 2020, separated by just one day from Johnson's son's birth on New Year's Eve when the artist was just 19 years old. In between drawing trucks and defining new movements in fine art, there were some interesting pitstops.

As a 10th grader, his art teacher introduced him to the iconic journalist Jimmy Breslin who took an interest in him and had him do courtroom drawings. There he met other courtroom artists and through them was later invited to share a space with graphic designers, artists and other creators. That led to assignments for creative directors who needed sketches for their presentation boards and a career in advertising, graphic design, and illustration.

In his spare time, he attended Pratt Institute. His fine artwork mostly extended to commissions until one day a client was looking around his studio, and after not seeing what she wanted she turned to leave and asked about a piece that he said was just his drop cloth. That was the piece she bought. So at 50, the ad guy, made a full-time pivot to fine art where he has been for nearly 15 years.

There is a spirituality connected to his work as well as the improvisational, like the jazz he loves. He says there is intentionality in the randomness of the art. It harkens to Picasso's cubist style, of course with his own edgy touch. He usually works on five to ten pieces at a time, with some being related. And there is that music reference again, composing is more important than execution he says. The artist lost his mother last year and, the weight of that also found its way into his work. "In my work, I speak of this cosmic connection," he says. "I'm not grieving her passing because I know she's just on the other side.” Johnson is still collaborating with other creatives and works out of a studio space called the Banana Factory in Bethlehem, Pa.

His work will be seen shortly in the CBS Paramount series Star Trek Picard. I'd guess gazing into the future with his VR headset on is a great way to go where no man, or artist, has gone before.