Style trumps pretty much everything except

aesthetics according to artist Tim Johnson. It’s an adage clearly manifested in

the 33 pieces that comprise his current show at Fort Wayne’s Kachmann Gallery,

1301 Lafayette Street. These mostly large, always imposing, oil images

make up a sort of travelogue of sights, scenes and architecture painted on

sites that vary from the Lake Michigan shoreline to the Louisiana countryside

to the northern Italy lake country all the way to the Mediterranean coastline

of southern France, where the artist now makes his home.

Sumptuously stroked, Johnson’s expressionist effigies

attest to an eye trained in its focus and tempered by captured light. His skies

seem drawn from the same color vat as the firmament, and he latches onto

diffused rays that reflect water. To gain his perspective he might sit plein

air along a street or along a rural, countryside lane. In Europe his easel and

chair might be accompanied by a bottle of his favorite wine. Other vistas, accessible

only from the water, are realized from various watercraft: a borrowed boat in

Michigan, a rented Italian skiff or from the deck of his own motor launch in

the waters off Cannes.

Not exactly a vagabond without roots, the

51-year-old Johnson was born and raised in Fort Wayne and for the last decade

has made his home, along with his wife Catherine and their son, eight-year-old

John-Baptiste, in the south of France near Cannes. Nurtured in the fine arts by

his father, “Whitey,” himself an artist and art teacher, the younger

Johnson studied at the former Saint Francis College and the Fort Wayne Art

Institute before earning degrees at Indiana University in Bloomington and

Bowling Green State University.

As romantic as his life and work may appear to us

stay-at-homes, the ruggedly handsome Johnson remains a hard working,

down-to-earth Yankee, sans any faux pretenses. Aside from a velour Givenchy

jacket and Gucci loafers, appropriate wear for a gallery opening, he’s most

comfortable in jeans and a ragged-at-the-edge T-shirt. He relates, however,

that with the current growing backlash against American foreign policy it can

be difficult to be an American amongst his European associates.

“I’ve, of necessity, grown thick skinned of

late to deal with the anti-Americanism. You simply have to to be able to deal

in the real world. Things have become ever so complex,” he mused recently

over a huge bowl of noodle soup at the Saigon, his favorite local restaurant.

“Even the simple things. For example, it

gets harder and harder to go back to the Uffizi gallery in Florence where

they’ve put plexi-glass over some of the most precious artwork. I was forced to

get used to it with the Mona Lisa, but now it’s becoming commonplace, and you

can imagine how it is for a painter who wants to examine such masterworks up

close – having to dodge the reflections to peer through the protective plastic


He can also get a bit edgy when talk turns to

wine. “Some things that pass for being good wine in the States would be vin

ordinaire or vin militaire in France. I’m in no way a true connoisseur, but

there is such a thing as good taste.”

Yes, Johnson has picked up a fair amount of

French. He is a licensed antique dealer and negotiates for his commercial

framing business in several continental languages. He’s particularly proud of

the marine navigation license needed to operate his boat, which he received

after passing a 200-question test, given in French.

And when it comes to good taste in any language

you have to consider Johnson’s paintings almost in the same breath as their

unique and often magnificent frames. Complementary as they are, they never

upstage his paintings, though it’s hard not to notice a vintage 18th century

hand-carved, gilded frame.

“I was alert and lucky enough to notice a

potential market for these unique antique frames a few years back,”

Johnson relates. “The workmanship and artistry is [sic] pretty

extraordinary when you consider they were done with basic tooling. Some are

signed by the craftsman, and it can be a special thing to behold once you

realize it is a 300-year-old object you’re admiring.

“Like any other business or line of work, it

can be tough and time-consuming. Not every find can be authentic, but I’ve

developed a string of dealers who are attuned to what I’m after, and I’m always

improving my negotiating skills.”

Returning to his paintings, it’s amazing how

consistent his style has become since his last local show nearly three years

ago. He really does stamp our ticket on this scenic tour de force. Missing,

however, is an audio accompaniment to provide the background and setting for

some of these pieces.

For example in one of the highlight works (there

are actually a pair of them), Prison de Masque de Fer. The paintings are of the prison

which housed the Man in the Iron Mask, out of which came Alexandre Dumas’ novel

of the same name. It’s a work that begs for explanation.

Every picture tells a story, it is said, and

Johnson’s current collection – whether in frame or image – abounds in them. The

artist makes a wonderful guide, and his stories, at least the ones we can

print, make for a rewarding excursion.