Claudette Johnson has continually questioned the boundaries imposed on black people, especially women. Solely concerned with portraiture, she puts black subjects on show in large, expressive paintings and drawings. The figures are not just large in the gallery, some extend beyond the confines of their frames or the paper they're drawn on. Others sit within the frame without adhering to defined rectangular borders. They take up their own space on their own terms.
At no point in I Came to Dance is a full body presented. Neither do Johnson's titles reveal specific names or stories. By avoiding anything that could be seen as a complete or infallible representation, she rejects the notion that she must neatly present black womanhood to her audience. Johnson purposefully gives us snapshots - a look over the shoulder, a reclining figure, a naked body, a portrait where outfit says more than facial expression. Through her refusal to box in any singular view of black femininity, she proves that there is always room for another angle. This ethos transfers to the projects Johnson participates in alongside her art. Her involvement and group exhibition work with the Blk Art Group celebrated various nuanced presentation of black identity. From this work, the First National Black Arts Conference was conceived in 1982, in turn facilitating the growth of a network of black women artists.
Johnson found large-scale work to be freeing. Not only do her figures take up space in the gallery, they take up space in their frames. Sitters often have their arms raised or their stomachs exposed in poses that project both defiance and vulnerability. The fact that she depicts this position in both men and women sets gender aside, and shifts focus to put black skin on show. Johnson also plays with the relationship between black bodies and white paper, especially in one of the exhibition's largest works, 'Reclining Figure' (2017). Here she sculpts the white space to allow her subject to take control of the canvas they're inhabiting; notions of blackness and whiteness are questioned. Further negotiations are introduced by Johnson's frequent representations of African sculpture and masks in the backgrounds of her portraits. They are positioned at odds with the subject of each work, establishing a conversation not just between the figure and the canvas they're presented on, but with traditional or other cultural representations of blackness.
Johnson's work is arresting and beautiful. She simultaneously relishes the opportunity to be representative of people like her, yet her works release the weight of representing all blackness with an exhibition that feels empowering and fresh.