Over the last 10 years, Phoenix-based Elisa Johns has developed a lively approach to working in oil that mixes washlike effects with impasto accents. “Bouts of Excess,” her first solo at Walker Contemporary (she previously showed at the Black Dragon Society in Los Angeles), featured six oils, all dated 2008, ranging in size from 26 by 16 to 48 by 72 inches.
Johns’s canvases recall fashion designers’ sketches: skinny, scantily clad women wearing high heels and retro hairstyles lounge in luxurious chambers. She draws on myth and history (art and otherwise), updating such iconic females as Cleopatra, Daphne and Marie Antoinette. In Cleopatra, for example, the Queen of the Nile shares an ornate boudoir with a couple of poodles and a flapperlike consort in a skimpy nightie who fingers a long necklace. The asp and Mark Anthony are nowhere to be seen.
Daphne and the Laurel Tree puts a contemporary twist on one of Ovid’s best-known metamorphoses. In place of the anxiety that one usually reads in the face of the river god’s doomed daughter as her arms sprout branches, ecstasy plays across the visage of Johns’s willowy figure, who sports black pumps and a sleeveless dress. With head thrown back and hands cupping breasts, this thoroughly modern Daphne appears to be enjoying her own transformation.
Ms. Antoinette experiences similar pleasures. In Marie on Rug, the queen lies on her back, afloat in a pool of blue right out of John Singer Sargent, her face locked in a Nicole Kidman stare. The cakes that she famously suggested as fare for the masses, including a number of cupcakes, are scattered about her, the frosting and decorations laid on in thick paint.
Johns cites art history directly in Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. The famous Peter Paul Rubens painting, loosely rendered, hangs behind the scene of a tryst: two women with bouffant hairdos stand in half-embrace in an otherwise nondescript setting. As the Flemish painter’s fleshy women are abducted, the skinny pair looks somewhat wistful.