Elisa Johns’ current body of work presents us with paintings of ‘pretty flowers’—not effusive bunches ornately arranged, but lonely little boughs almost accidentally discovered, that proclaim their idiosyncrasy. She photographs them while on regular hikes amid the peaks and vales of the Sierra Nevada’s, a 70-mile wide by 400-mile long range of mountains crossing the length of the state of California, a vast landscape reminiscent of the early pioneer era in American history. Despite this dramatic backdrop, lush with historical reference, and bounding with breathless vistas, Johns makes little discoveries that she documents photographically and then works out her compositions from the photographs.
Johns has a penchant for the uncommon growth, although the chances she may have had to encounter these plants in areas where they are most common may have been aided by a bit of homework and an aptitude for looking in unusual latitudes—areas previously scorched by fire, where vernal pools have formed, or within the dense undergrowth of birch trees, where little sunlight penetrates—to find unique and hidden beauty is a talent. A certain emotional emancipation from the struggles of everyday life is afforded by the languorous pastime of gazing at beautiful flowers. Yet a difference exists between a public garden and a mountain range. Johns is not interested in pure escapism, but in finding aesthetic moments that are tied to subjects with specific background roles in nature. The photographs distill their subject into an expressive microcosm of the natural world. Johns’ aesthetic register is bound on one side by veracity in context and on the other by an all-pervasive sublime. Johns’ newest work reinvents and reinvigorates her inspirational wellspring.
“There is something precious in Johns’ depiction of these images, in which the fleeting quality of sensory associated pleasure commingles with elements of its opposite: random occurrences of danger, as in the poison, associated predation and violence, of a rattlesnake’s bite.”
Though no human characters appear in her newest series, they yet contain a dramatic element that the flowers, and attendant wildlife elements, and the framing of the central flora figure by use of diffuse colors to replicate the shimmer of petals in sunlight, or the use of an overwhelming void of whiteness to either present them in some pure environment or to bring out the nuanced line, gesture, and chromatic elements that make each of her forms idiosyncratically human. Part of the appeal and power of such artfully simple images as Fireweed and Western Rattlesnake is their spirit of innocence, which is an element in our earliest comprehension and construction of dimensions of beauty as presented by nature. There is something precious in Johns’ depiction of these images, in which the fleeting quality of sensory associated pleasure commingles with elements of its opposite: random occurrences of danger, as in the poison, associated predation and violence, of a rattlesnake’s bite. But really, the opposite of beauty is the sublime, a beauty couched in elements that overwhelm us. The framing of her subjects within a void of whiteness achieves this. This whiteness is the limit of memory, an arc of recognition that allows only certain things to enter, but not the entire environment. What draws our attention is therefore connected to us not merely on a sensory level but attaches to the unconscious, becoming mythical. Johns has made such a repeated study of her favorite wildflowers that they have become archetypes, characteristic of different aspects of her personality. Her Fireweed says, here I have survived a great calamity, and I breed in great numbers. Limnanthes claims, I am reborn from unknown sources, inhabiting a wet and fecund place where small things grow to feed larger things. And with Ghost Flower, I grow in darkness. I feed on indirect light. I am solitary yet I cannot live alone. I connect to larger structures to maintain myself.
The beauty of Elisa John’s wildflowers is tied specifically to their role in the overall landscape, elements within which the random yet devoted hiker, even one with artistic motivations, would find a rich context. To be “wild” is not to exist without purpose. Nature itself is a complex weld of systems. Human beings tend to assume that any exigency amid them exists for their own designs, such as foraging among these flowers for food, or to create useful items such a baskets; but nature exists to perpetuate itself, and Johns’ depiction of these smallest and most beleaguered elements of a vast natural landscape gives agency to the unknown forces behind them. Johns humanizes them without reducing their power over us.