The Ritz Herald
Rae Johnson. @ Jim Russell

When an Artist Dies

Rae Johnson, 1953-2020

Published on September 12, 2020

Canadian artist Rae Johnson died in May 2020, with her daughters and her son by her side. Rae was a representational painter who recently started writing on art as a Toronto editor for the New Art Examiner. A veteran of the local art scene, having studied, lived, worked and shown in the city since1975, Rae was also a tenured professor at Toronto’s OCAD University.

Rae was a friend, she lived a few blocks away, we’ve known each other for 30 years, I loved her work, reviewed her shows for U.K.’s New Art Examiner and N.Y. mags. Rae’s paintings told a tale, a narrative of moments that otherwise would be lost like tears in the rain. Her canvasses were painted freehand, to me they look like hugemongous whimsical drawing. The first painting of hers I saw was Night Games At Paradise, had me seriously impressed. There was our local bar, familiar places, familiar people; our lives turned into myth and frozen in times, right there on the canvas.

Night Games at Paradise, 1984, Oil on canvas, 84 × 132 in, 213.4 × 335.3 cm, Christopher Cutts Gallery

I love comparing the tension of that painting with the serene calm in this landscape of Canada’s western prairie, Manitoba 12 years ago. That’s a contrasting statement.

Selkirk / Furrows, 2008, Oil on panel, 72 × 86 in, 182.9 × 218.4 cm, Christopher Cutts Gallery

Look how a visual language of color and shape conveys the mood, while side by side they tell a story; one is a cautionary tale and the other a tale of healing; obviously Rae looked squarely at both the dark and light sides of life. She was actually proud of her courage, her daring at rejecting conventional middle class behavior. That meant risk, and adventures where she discovered her intellectual and creative freedom as an artist.

Rae had studied Jung, was up on her psychology, there’s semiotic statements in all her work. For example there’s an alcohol bar and a mirror , then a blue Madonna in the middle of a warm yellow floor while a naked lady on the bed say “wow do I have a headache”. The mirror a reflection at the moment empty, the alcohol as the cause of this conflict between the expectations of being a Madonna against the reality of waking up with a hangover.

Anima Animus, 1981, acrylic on canvas, 67 × 97 1/2 in, 170.2 × 247.7 cm, Christopher Cutts Gallery

It gets even stranger with Death of the Child. These are demons of anxiety.

Death of the Child, 1985 Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in, 198.1 × 226.1 cm Christopher Cutts Gallery

Rae’s brushstrokes here remind me of Van Gogh, she liked touched the same inner deep in this work, there’s confusion and inescapable, unbearable anxiety. But then Rae had children., a source of happiness. In the painting below, I always assumed this was one of her daughters. Rae Johnson’s last years were an artist’s hopes made real, her kids grown up and doing well, teaching at a prestigious school, living in her own house with a big garden and a coach house converted to a studio, her work constant, canvasses one after another, the newer work has a maturity of an artist in her prime. Rae’s estate is represented by Christopher Cutts Gallery.

Flying Woman, 2017, Oil and graphite on canvas, 44 × 46 in, 111.8 × 116.8 cm, Christopher Cutts Gallery

Now she’s dead, what will they say about her? Rae was a talented artist, she was empathic; she cared about others, she was a good friend, a mother, a person of high sensibility. Rae was a good person, and that is the best we can say of anyone, the greatest compliment, she was a good person.

Arts Columnist