"I'm Probably Most Skeptical of the Art World and the Super-Wealthy" - Stab Mag

“I’m Probably Most Skeptical of the Art World and the Super-Wealthy”

Chatting with revered SF-based artist Chris Johanson about life, absurdism, and his new Vans collection.

Words by Ashton Goggans

Every once in a while, a high art genius dabbles in the world of surf. Raymond Pettibon, Julian Schnabel, Barry McGee, Geoff McFetridge, Thomas Campbell, Rick Griffin—their interest and participation has given our little enclave a rich mine of cultural capital. 

One such artist on that list is Chris Johanson. A 1980s product of the rich Bay Area subcultural tradition, and a member of the famous San Francisco Mission School of artists for the last three decades, conceptual artist Chris Johanson has occasionally crossed over into the surf and skate world. You might recognize his work from Anti Hero graphics or the terrific documentary Beautiful Losers, in which Chris plays a major role.

His partnership with Vans features a new range of bright, expressive, environmentally friendly pieces. We were thrilled to get on the phone with Chris at his home in Portland, where he lives with his wife and fellow artist Jo Jackson. 

vans designed by chris johanson
Both the Authentic SF and Destruct SF contain less than 1% by outsole weight of material scraps from the factory cutting floor, which have been chopped up and inserted into the outsoles, ultimately diverting these materials from a landfill. Photo by Vans.

Stab: I think many readers will either be familiar with or tangentially aware of your work. But I  wanted to give them a sense of where you originated from.

I’m from the Bay Area, from San Jose, and I grew up skateboarding as a really little kid in the Seventies, all the way through moving to San Francisco in ’89. 

I was always up there to see punk and new wave shows in the early eighties. But then I moved to San Francisco in ’89. 

Were you aware that you were at the center of something when you moved to San Francisco?

No. I was just somebody who moved there because it’s such a magical, strange city.

I lived in the Mission District. Of course, I was attracted to the mythology of the cities being like a Bohemian outpost. A kind of a Post-Hippie, Post-Punk era. San Francisco always felt like a lot headier city than most in America. It was super cheap at the time, and there was a politically left, drop-out kind of culture. But I was also just attracted to its cheapness and the anonymity of living in a city.

Johanson’s woven shirt made of 80% organic cotton. Photo by Vans.

Thinking about that whole Beat Generation umbrella, you were grouped into the turn-of-the-century collective “Beautiful Losers.” Are you suspicious of groupings of seemingly like-minded artists of a period of time? Or that you all were actually tied together through these different subcultural tapestries?

I’m kind of always equal parts skeptical and open. Just as an independent thinker, I guess. I was happy to be in that show, and I was happy to be in the book. I was happy to be in the movie because my philosophy is to show your art wherever you can show it. Show it in as many different contexts as possible, whether it’s having a show in a garage or a museum. Whether it’s with social practice artists or conceptually weighted artists. 

I have always enjoyed and been really happy about my ability to share my art in such different contexts.

I’ve done shows with graffiti artists, or within the context of punk music or psychedelic music even.

There are always different ways to be a part of something. 

chris johanson for vans
Photo by Vans.

So I’ve always been glad about it. I didn’t know a lot of [the Beautiful Losers] people. They were Aaron Rose’s friends and what he was interested in. It was a pretty hodgepodge group of people. We were this crew living in San Francisco, where there wasn’t much of an art scene, or people weren’t really paying attention to it. We weren’t in New York, and we weren’t graphic designers or involved with commercial arts at that point; though a lot of the people in Aaron’s show, maybe a third of them were more commercial artists working in that way.

Which I don’t mind. As far as skepticism goes, I’m probably most skeptical of the art world and the super-wealthy.

That crew was more comfortable operating in that world, it seemed, almost more than they were in the high art world. There was just as much value in being recognized for your work through some massive international campaign, than selling your work for an exorbitant amount of money to a collector. 

blue vans designed by chris johanson
An exaggerated reverse rubber lug outsole that provides extra traction, and is offered in slate and antique white, with surfing images across the upper. Photo by Vans.

It’s interesting to think about,  like, where values are placed in art and communication. I mean, I think New Yorker Magazine covers are high art to my community. The way those artists communicate the contemporary moment. That’s a really, really special art. That’s some of my favorite art that’s ever happening.

I feel like there’s quite a bit of that style of social commentary in your work though, as far as punchlines, and the subversiveness that you can accomplish with that type of work and style. 

You know, it’s an interesting story. In the Nineties, I was commissioned by the New Yorker for a self-portrait. There was a coup at the New Yorker, and the Editor was fired. They own the art and paid me for it, but it never did end up in the issue. And that was the end of that. It would have been really special, but that’s what happened.

What is your sort of balance of practice these days? You still seem to have a lot going on in different corners.

I do work for shows, but I’m just an absurdist. Everything is just so strange, especially right now, and I like to keep working. Lately, I’ve been doing stuff for Vans. I like to do stuff for Anti-Hero occasionally. I just did the third in a series; I’ve done posters with boards. That was really fun.

Photo by Vans.

I don’t know if it’s a California thing or if it’s a city-life-living-in-SF thing, but what I appreciate about Anti-Hero is mostly through my friendship with Julian Stranger. I enjoy my conversations, and we seem to have some common ground with things that we want to say and share publicly with art. That’s what I’ll say about that. I’ve been involved with skateboarding for a long time, and I have other friendships with like Todd [Swank] from Foundation, and Ed Templeton. And I love them. With Anti-Hero, there’s a realism that just flows that I relate to you.

I really love that “McJesus” graphic: “over 50 billion kills.” I really love that. I love the little seeds that get planted in the minds of the youth—because the conviction of religion can be such a damaging thing. I don’t relate to organized religion. I don’t relate to any of that. I always felt people that are attracted to riding boards are free spirits and looking outside of the boxes that are presented to our world. 

Do you consider your art political or morally driven in any way? 

I think, you know, love your neighbor, love thy neighbors. But you know, you don’t really even need to say anything else about it to get where I’m coming from. 

A colorful-yet-ethereal swirl. Photo by Vans.

I draw and paint for fairly self-involved reasons. I mean, it’s really for therapy. But I do like to share my thoughts, and I’m lucky that sometimes I can connect with someone through a picture, or sometimes with text, sometimes with the picture and text. I’m happy when that does happen. 

The new range with Vans is so expressive and colorful and different. Is it fun to sort of shift gears and work on something like that?

It was a fun project to get into because I really enjoy the company of the people who work there. I’ve worked with Vans over the years doing posters and work for the Duct Tape.

This experience was new, and I was excited because they’re working with all these interesting materials. They’re environmentally forward-thinking technologies, so I just wanted to get to work with those materials.

A favorite among those looking for go-anywhere functionality. Photo by Vans.

You can find the Vans x Chris Johanson collection here.

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