Though the Hallie Ford Museum of Art has many gems in its permanent collection, George Johanson’s 1982 Black Cat-Mountain is particularly notable to me because of the evolution of my rapport with it over time. During my four years as an undergraduate student, this large work executed in acrylic and oil on canvas has hung in the same spot in the Pacific Northwest galleries of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

The sizable, predominately rose-hued painting attracted particular attention on my very first visit to the museum as a freshman.

The aesthetic appeal was most likely due to the attractive silhouette of a black cat leaping across the center of the composition. I, as many do, happen to love cats. Untrained in the art of looking, I found this painting to be yet still a striking arrangement of form and color. A recognizable urban landscape supports the looming form of mountain and spewing smoke, a representation of the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, as noted on the placard accompanying the work.

With figurative forms, here was a painting that could be read, and entered into, one that opened itself up in an enigmatic yet accessible manner.

Soon after delving into the curriculum of Art History, details of the work of art emerged further to be contemplated. A curious composition, the silhouette of the black cat obscures the face of the representation of a seated figure. The pharaoh-like pose and drapery are the only seeming stillness in the composition, in which an interior space inter-penetrates an exterior space. The eruption of the volcano over the city-scape, one that rained smoke and ash down over the urban sprawl of Portland, leads to the contemplation of the predominance of nature over urban stability and comforts.

The magnitude of the chromatic composition is unerringly vibrant, evoking an impression of space with imagined color and flattened imagery.

Carefully structured forms of chaos delineate the expression of the ordered chaos of the natural world, as egg-like forms balance on the depiction of the interior space. Not only is the representation of the egg a nod towards the precariousness of our way of life at the mercy of the natural world’s unpredictability, but it can also be a modern gesture of appropriation, in which the form of an egg bears a direct reference to Renaissance-era symbolism.

Alongside contemporaries dealing with the geography of the Pacific Northwest in the Hallie Ford’s northwest collection, this larger, brighter composition moves towards a more artificial aesthetic in that the imitation of natural forms extends towards a personalized impression of interior space and landscape. Historical record and imagined reality, this painting expresses a set of visual codes rife with meaning and more delicate nuances.

This painting attests, more personally, to a wealth of knowledge gleaned with time spent exploring and revisiting objects such as this painting in our university’s museum, and demystifying, for at least one student, what it means for art to be art in its every context.

-Lauren Johnson, Fall 2013

George Johanson (b. 1928), Black Cat - Mountain, 1982

George Johanson (b. 1928), Black Cat - Mountain, 1982, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 68" x 44", " Collection of Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, Gift of George Johanson

Art History Honors:

  • Recipient of Willamette University Department of Art History Honors; The Erwin Panofsky Research Award
Willamette University

Art History

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Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.

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