Steven M. Johnson’s send-ups of technical manuals make the leap from printed page to gallery wall
By Michael Aushenker
The “Moto-Dinette” — a motorcycle built for two that spreads out into a picnic table and bench.
A “Yogamobile” that allows its robed occupants to sit in lotus position while driving.
An alarm that lets a guy know if his zipper is down.
Whimsical yet technical, the deadpan art of Steven M. Johnson that goes up on the Trunk Gallery’s walls on Saturday may deliver a sense of humor drier than the latex paint underneath the hangings. There’s a sense of precision recalling the illustrations seen in technical manuals, and that’s very much by design, the artist said.
“I enjoy the fun of the inventing process. I had to actually make them seem to work. The reader can see how I had to construct it with some serious design work even if it were stupid,” said Johnson, a self-described “possibilitist.”
The Mar Vista show is the first West Coast solo show for Johnson, 76, who now lives in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael but had worked in Torrance for 18 years as a trend analyst for Honda. His time with the automaker and early work in city planning may have had a hand in informing his mechanical-minded art, he reluctantly admits.
But from 1972 to 1995, Johnson worked as one of the general artists at the Sacramento Bee, where he created charts, graphs and other illustrations to accompany articles.
And then there was “A Step Ahead,” his future-thinking panel cartoons which ran from 1989 to 1995, allowing Johnson to eke out some extra pay illustrating his fanciful creations for $25 each.
“I’m a wannabe cartoonist,” he said, tongue-in-cheek.
In truth, Johnson’s cartooning began in the late 1960s for Cry California, an environmental magazine. He did similar-minded art as a freelancer for the Sierra Club Bulletin (later Sierra Magazine) from 1973 to 1980.
The Trunk Gallery show began taking root a few weeks ago at the Maker Fair in San Mateo, where gallery owner Ann Perich found Johnson hawking his books and selling prints.
The exhibit draws from Johnson’s three published illustration collections — 1984’s “What the World Needs Now” (which includes such schematic illustrations as “Exercise Roll Bar,” “Bed-Room,” “Shirt and Tie Mutations” and “Moto-Dinette”), 1991’s “Public Therapy Buses” and 2012’s self-published “Have Fun Inventing.” Each captures mirthful musings on modern life and superlative “conveniences” in a vein that might recall the maddening contraptions featured in filmmaker Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” and “Traffic.”
“I even heard industrial designers passed it around,” Johnson said of his first book.
Johnson has actually built one of his inventions — a two-story slipper with a flashlight dubbed “Slippershine” that appeared in a Johnny Carson bit on “The Tonight Show” circa Christmas 1987.
Despite the imagination invested in these ingenious pseudo-inventions, “I’ve never put a patent on anything,” he said.
One of the illustrations in the upcoming Trunk show will be a hot tub convertible he drew for Road & Track magazine.
After all those years creating panels for periodicals, Johnson believes it’s the interest of others, not self-motivation, that gets his wheels and gears spinning and spurs him into action these days.
“It’s somewhere between peculiar and embarrassing, but it’s more that I’m driven by assignments. It is dependent a lot on whether there’s interest or not.”
Steven M. Johnson’s “Fear Furniture and Public Therapy Buses” exhibit kicks off with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. The show continues through July 14 at Trunk Gallery, 12818 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista. Call (310) 483-7221 or visit trunkgallery.org.