C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (1943), the second volume of his science-fiction trilogy, follows philologist Elwin Ransom on a solitary journey to rescue the planet Perelandra (Venus) from the threat of destruction. Along the way, Ransom encounters a variety of unusual organisms, including “great globes of yellow fruit” that hang temptingly from trees in a forest, “clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of the balloon-man and about the same size.”
The American artist Nicholas William Johnson found great inspiration in Lewis’s colorful descriptions of flora. And, beyond the nomenclature of these new species, Johnson and the protagonist Ransom are both interested in their otherworldly taste: “It was so different from every other taste that it seemed mere pedantry to call it a taste at all,” Lewis writes. “It was like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures, something unheard of among men, out of all reckoning, beyond all covenant.”
Now, for his first solo show in Italy, Johnson captures that mysterious tropical atmosphere in a new suite of paintings. “Dewdrinker or The Intolerable Strangeness of Vegetable Consciousness,” on view at Montoro12 Contemporary Art in Rome, features a series of works that are at once vibrant and shadowy, sensuous but ominous. The plant life seems just that: alive. Using materials ranging from acrylic and spray paint to marble dust, string, and fabric appliqué, Johnson creates lush layers of texture and color that could almost serve as illustrations for Ransom’s expedition.
Johnson finds a parallel in Lewis’s trilogy and in contemporary life. In addition to painting, Johnson studies climate change, and in his view, we’re nearing the end of the Anthropocene epoch, the human-centered geological age that will succumb to dramatic changes in climate. He would know: Johnson happens to be from Hawaii, a tropical paradise in flux.
It’s no wonder the utopia we see in his paintings seems strangely foreboding: Time is passing, the fruit is dying, the world is changing. The titular Dewdrinker is the viewer—and like Ransom, who tries to understand this new genus, you might not be able to put the visceral experience into words. The taste of the yellow fruits, Lewis writes, is indefinable: “He could never tell us, when he came back to the world of men, whether it was sharp or sweet, savoury or voluptuous, creamy or piercing.”
“Nicholas William Johnson: Dewdrinker or The Intolerable Strangeness of Vegetable Consciousness” is on view at Montoro12 Contemporary Art, Rome, Nov. 17–Dec. 23, 2016.