Cletus Johnson has been making theatre constructions for ten years. He was drawn to the “shadow box” format—usually consigned to natural history museum dioramas—by its unique and suggestive possibilities. The medium’s closeness to the aesthetics of carpentry and craft were also attractive to Johnson, who is interested in folk art woodcutters. His theatres are shallow box-like constructions with just enough real architectural elements to, at first glance, have credibility as “real” architecture. They are painted a matte grey or brown, generally, with sober ornamentation that recalls late nineteenth century neoclassical style. A second look reveals some curious details: doorways that lead nowhere, a doorway that simply leans against the building, as if waiting for the otherwise meticulous architect to find a place for it. A lone cow stands perched on a ledge of one facade with an air of belonging. Such incongruous elements coexist in utter harmony.
The enchantment is deepened by a gentle light that emanates from within and can be controlled by a rheostat. The ability to alter the light stems from the artist’s desire to effect the sense of time passing. The physical details of the piece also evoke the sensation of gentle flux, evanescence.
“Winter,” reproduced here, is the first of a series of four constructions with a seasonal motif. It is one of the more complex of Johnson’s theatres, with three rheostats and nearly 140 lights. The construction is approximately four feet tall; to give a sense of perspective the artist himself is discernible learning against is work in the last photograph. The photographs were taken by Jack Mitchell in collaboration with the artist. In the photographs, the pair attempted an intimate examination of the piece, scanning the work as one might at an exhibition.
all photographs by Jack Mitchell copyright 1977