In Paintings, Sculptures, and Photographs, Artist Gregory Johnston Revives the Golden Age of Racing

Feb 5, 2016 8:20PM

“I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” These words, written by the Roland Barthes in his 1957 book of essays Mythologies, elevated the automobile to the status of an artistic object—and who better than a celebrated French philosopher to validate the passions of generations of car enthusiasts? The American artist Gregory Johnston is one such enthusiast, and he carries this passion into his art. 

Born in L.A. in 1969, Johnston’s fascination with car culture was instilled at an early age: in his youth, he regularly attended the car races at Laguna Seca, a classic California racetrack, with his father and grandfather. Later, while starting out as an artist, Johnston chose the mid-century European racing car as the subject and inspiration for his first major paintings on raw aluminum, a decision that set the tone for his career. “Corsa Rossa (The Physical Presence of Being),” his new exhibition at Mark Borghi Fine Art in Palm Beach, offers an intriguing glimpse at the artist’s latest take on the subject. 

“Corsa Rossa” is Italian for “Red Race”—and the red in question, as is immediately apparent in paintings and sculptural pieces like Catena Cuore Guidato (2015), is a reference to the Ferrari. These artworks weren’t just inspired by the classic luxury sportscar: they’re made with pieces of actual vintage Ferraris. The basis of Corsa Rossa Talisman/250PF (2016) is a 1960 Ferrari 250PF hood; Sicurezza Targa Coppa (2016) was made, in part, with a Ferrari F430 engine sump and racing harness.

A phrase from the exhibition’s title, “The Physical Presence of Being,” suggests the central question Johnston raises in repurposing old car parts. When removed from the larger whole, what value does a car hood (or engine, or door) have? If a piece is no longer functional as part of a machine, can it take on new significance—can we, in fact, actually see it anew? 

Johnston (like Barthes, we can assume) certainly thinks so: he’s an artist with nostalgia for the golden age of racing. “It’s got all the elements the art world loves—color, noise, celebrity and fashion,” he has said. Forget about the drab world of modern racing: Johnston would rather bring back mid-century classic cars, the vintage color palette, and the intricate and often beautiful parts that make the larger machine run, for our reconsideration. Or, perhaps for many viewers, our first real consideration.

Bridget Gleeson

Gregory Johnston: Corsa Rossa (The Physical Presence of Being)” is on view at Mark Borghi Fine Art, Palm Beach, Jan. 21st – Feb. 19th, 2016.

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