SLEVIN, 1992 – 93

100 Highlights from the Cbus Collection of Australian Art
27 July 2022


born 1938
SLEVIN, 1992 – 93

oil on canvas

213.5 x 183.0 cm

signed, dated and inscribed with title on stretcher bar verso: Michael Johnson “SLEVIN” 1992–93 OIL 

$30,000 – $40,000
Sold for $55,227 (inc. BP) in Auction 70 - 27 July 2022, Melbourne

Private collection 
Deutscher~Menzies, Melbourne, 21 August 2000, lot 5 
The Cbus Collection of Australian Art, Melbourne, acquired from the above


Colour and Movement, Benalla Art Gallery, Victoria, 19 February – 9 June 2016
on long term loan to Bendigo Art Gallery, Victoria 


Nainby, B., Stanhope, Z., and Furlonger, K., The Cbus Collection of Australian Art, in association with Latrobe Regional Gallery, Melbourne, 2009, pp. 163 (illus.), 222

Catalogue text

A towering and energetic painting, Michael Johnson’s Slevin, 1992 – 93 presents an immersive vertical plane of painted accretions, arranged in dense matrices through which the viewer can travel. The title possibly refers to the Gaelic word for mountain, reinforcing the imposing power of this painting’s physical presence. Sydney-based painter, Johnson has been a stalwart presence in the Australian art world, resolutely faithful to abstraction in its many forms. Slevin was painted at the height of Johnson’s riotous painterliness of the eighties, nineties and early two-thousands. These paintings presented a series of variations on a theme inspired by a newfound interest in the complexity of the natural world and the underlying structures that govern it all. 

Organised around a composition of interlocking colour graduations and chromatic harmonies in three horizontal strata, Slevin, like other paintings by Johnson from this period, is ultimately a work about the power of colour. The critic John McDonald, who was a keen champion of the artist in newsprint at the time, remarked in 1990 that it was difficult to ‘think of any living artist anywhere who uses colour with the same degree of intensity and skill’.1 Building on his technical skills as a hard-edge colourist, Johnson had an innate understanding of the physical properties of colour, orchestrating the associations and tensions between each daub and streak into a complex symphony. Some of these layers are startlingly bright, including large underlying areas of magenta and upper veils of lime green. The directionality of the paint and the gesture (whether smoothed on with a palette knife, vigorously worked into the canvas with a wide brush or squeezed on directly from the tube) also alternates between each later. This creates a cumulatively cross-hatched surface that is alive with the push-and-pull tension between background and foreground, its ambiguous surface has a shallow pictorial depth, no focal point or anchoring features. Slevin’s surface is enlivened with occasional bursts of iridescence within the depths of the foundational matrix. 

By virtue of its detachment from pictorial representation, no interpretation or associative play is required from the viewer. Johnson has always been adamantly against prescriptive explanations of his artworks, explaining that they only required individual observation and engagement with the pictorial surface. One might be tempted to read within Johnson’s painting architectural associations or watery landscapes, or strata of the earth’s crust, however none of these are dictated by the artist. He works with a confident free-hand engagement with the act of painting, ‘like a poet moving from iambic pentameter into free verse or a musician going from a fixed score to brilliant improvisation’.2 

1. McDonald, J., ‘Sinew of an Athlete’, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney, 6 October 1990 
2. McDonald, J., cited in Pearce, B., Michael Johnson, The Beagle Press, Sydney, 2004, p. 98