With his signature blend of abstract formalism and documentary realism, over the past five years photographer David Johnson has carefully chronicled an ample swath of St. Louis' art ecology. A Texas native who came to pursue a graduate degree in visual art at Washington University, Johnson has an eye for the most banal of domestic details, finding in them enough dramatic potential to compose imagery that is at once evocative and uncanny. For his exhibition in this year's Great Rivers Biennial, Johnson shot a kind of large-scale institutional portrait, probing the interior space of the Contemporary Art Museum and the homes of its board and major benefactors for glimpses of private and vulnerable character. Entirely unpeopled and often radically truncated, the photographs nonetheless captured a lived presence — be it the lively spirit of the places themselves or the subtly tousled traces of their inhabitants. A plastic-draped and taped-off gallery with a trash can poised just outside speaks of tangible labor and nonobjective, geometric interplay. Light, whether casting the shadows of metal stairwell railings or the long line of an electrical cord, adds warmth or sterility (and serves as an ample muse either way). Shelves of tchotchkes are juxtaposed with grids of pristinely hung contemporary art: The collecting urge is indiscriminate. In this and prior projects, Johnson seems to seek a truer sense of place and purpose — with enough elusive mystery and visual elegance thrown in to make the images appealingly strange. Finding mystery and austerity in the everyday is a feat and a worthy endeavor.
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