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Gothic Design with a Welded Age

When the 'Batman Forever' crew came calling, Gunner Johnson gave them a major eyeful

As a child, artist Gunner Johnson destroyed his toys and wreaked havoc in his room. As a teenager, he stole cars. As an adult, he never had the patience to pursue formal artistic training.

''I was full of anger and passion. I needed a way to channel it,'' he says today, calmly sitting in his Hollywood apartment, surrounded by sculpture, drawings, and paintings.

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One might expect wild, undisciplined work. Instead, his art is supremely controlled.

The range of materials and styles is startling and eclectic. A walking-stick sculpture made of palm fronds and crystal looks native American, as does a wood, fur, and plaster mask dangling from the ceiling corner. A realistic female arm, dangling a bracelet and gripping a gun, juts from the wall above the couch.

Detailed pen drawings of part-animal, part-human beings on the wall and a large, unfinished oil painting of a dragon-being in his kitchen show off an illustrator's storytelling sensibility.

His small living room is completely dominated by ''IS,'' a fantastical 7-by 5-foot wood and steel throne, weighing over 250 pounds. In it, Johnson transforms gnarled, Manzanita tree roots and salvage sheet steel into silky soft curves and feathery surfaces covered with painstakingly sculpted and welded details. The steel webbed wings that make up the throne back look poised to take flight, light as air, belying their industrial material.

Futuristic yet primitive work

The throne embodies the dominant themes of Johnson's work: a futuristic, Gothic sensibility combined with classic mythological themes, painstakingly worked out in primitive materials.

Gotham City artifacts, one might even call them. In fact, set designers for the current ''Batman Forever'' film called Gunner after he sent them slides of his oeuvre.

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Unable to find anything to express their concept of the dark side of the Two-Face lair, they paid Johnson a single visit and nabbed the throne, ''IS,'' as well as two tables. The menacing, yet sophisticated furniture perfectly fused Two-Face's evil power with the smooth elegance of his good side. The tab? More than $12,000.

Johnson is attracting critical attention as well.

Harry Segil, well-known Los Angeles artist and furniture designer, compares Johnson to artists such as photographer Robert Mapplethorpe when they were starting out. ''His art makes people look at the culture,'' he explains.

Segil says Johnson takes cold, inanimate metal and creates poignant angel wings with delicate scales that make a powerful statement about our ability to express spirituality or whimsy in a harsh, material age. He believes Johnson has a promising future. ''His work exists on many levels.''

Segil also says that the job of an artist is to absorb and internalize what's happening, and then to express an encounter with the culture and its effect on the individual. Johnson does that. ''He's got his [finger on] the pulse of what's happening,'' Segil muses.

Johnson uses natural materials ''in a way that keeps people in touch with their fantasy and spirituality,'' while at the same time reminding them of the harsh realities of daily life. The Manzanita wood used in the throne, numerous tables, and candlesticks came from the Topanga Hills, which were scarred in the Malibu, Calif., fires.

A steel and wood candlestick, entitled ''Eternal Life,'' is dedicated to fire victim Duncan Gibbons and is constructed of wood found on the property surrounding Gibbons's house, which was consumed in the fire. Johnson's first one-man show in 1994, at the Gallerie Cathedrale, was dedicated to those who died in the fires.

''Gunner's work is very masculine, very primal, but very tender at the same time,'' says Alexander Andree, a German painter and owner of the Gallerie Cathedrale. He says Johnson possesses a wonderful combination of primeval power and softness.

Andree says that when Johnson walked into his Fairfax Avenue gallery in March 1994, he was flabbergasted by the way he could bring softness into the hardest of materials, such as wood and steel. ''He is a real artist, not just a craftsman,'' he says, pointing out that his functional work, such as the tables, chairs, and candlesticks, show a sort of spiritual energy that makes them one-of-a-kind pieces.

It is only within the past 18 months that he has felt like a real artist, Johnson says. Before Jan. 17, 1994, a date seared into the consciousness of any Los Angeles resident by the massive Northridge earthquake, Johnson built homes in Beverly Hills, designed neon, and constructed movie sets while pursuing his art at night.

First show drew raves

After he was injured in the quake and went on federal disability, he was finally freed, for the first time, to pursue his art full time. He got a Small Business Administration loan of $1,200 to buy welding gear and plunged into a frenzy of creation. His first solo show at the Gallerie Cathedrale was extended to two and a half months after what owner Andree calls an overwhelming public response.

Johnson himself, who is the grandson of a crowned king of the Kakyzai tribe in Afghanistan, says he is influenced by many things, such as classic mythology and images from native American cultures, but his main goal is to take people higher, to make them find the light after destruction, as he has had to do in his own life.

Although he maintains he has had no formal artistic training, Johnson's years of work as a carpenter and set designer have given him an understanding of form and structure that are critical to the power of his furniture sculpture. ''I like people to get a sense of their own power. If they can sit in my throne and feel that, that's my goal.''

In keeping with his desire to empower others through his work, Johnson also teaches art at Options House, an Los Angeles facility for troubled teens.

Prices for Johnson's pieces begin at $5,000. He still works on commission, but won't accept a project assignment for under that amount, because ''I know what it takes out of me to create something.'' Below a certain amount, the investment of time and materials isn't worth it.

Johnson would like to go both smaller and bigger. He has a short-story series in mind, accompanied by finely detailed, fantastical drawings. Johnson says he also wants to influence people ''in big ways.'' Next up from the Johnson studio? A skyscraper-sized sculpture. Just as soon as he finds the space to build it.

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