Jay Johnson, "Untitled, 2005," mixed media, 53.3 x 106.7 x 48.2 cm. Photo: Raymond Lum.
JAY JOHNSON, Everything Must Go
Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam
Apr 6 — May 13, 2006
By Bettina Matzkuhn
Jay Johnson's Vancouver studio is alive with sculptures that wiggle and roar. A wooden ironing board on wheels gingerly rotates a laundry-tree sprout while raising and lowering a weight suspended under the board's nose. Somehow, the gyrations bring to mind a notion of the ghost of Dylan Thomas's spinster aunt announcing her presence. A diminutive vehicle of musty wood on four baby carriage wheels trundles along, its oversized horn blaring vicious gunfire. Another contraption Johnson calls "The Sweeper" drizzles black sand from a funnel as it inches along, the broom at its end re-arranging the sand rather than sweeping it up. There's a square bar stool construction featuring a tall pole dangling a headless cloth figure. Activated, its gears wheeze, and a decayed, prehistoric baseball bat nudges closer to the figure. Another slow wheeze and BAM! the bat sends the figure into orbit. Like the syncopation of fate, the beat never falls quite when we expect it.
Johnson's sense of timing stems from years as a drummer. He says he likes the idea of a trigger; the expectation generated between pause and launch. In many instances, trigger is both noun and verb in his kinetic sculptures. While studying industrial design at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, he was told, "If you want to be a good designer, don't just look at other designs, look beyond." His teacher's advice surfaces in his confounding combination of materials. He synthesizes basement detritus, electrical components, kitsch, and pure metaphor. Light bulbs, feathers, fishing lures, gears, and electrical wires all conjure up other activities, forcing the viewer to sort out associations, experiences, and possibilities. The works are dynamic even without sound or movement.
In a gallery setting, the pieces work from motion sensors, viewer-operated switches, or are set in motion by an attendant. They are not brand-name appliances with consumer ratings. They have much more in common with the bonding rituals of fathers and sons tinkering with old Dodges or the crusty old men who fish in boats powered by the sedate pulse of a single-cylinder Easthope engine. Wistfully, we recall a time when there were machines any handyman could fix. Today, when the computer's eyeball rolls up in its head, we are forced to rely on a specialist.
In a sense, Johnson has become a specialist. He has honed the practice of making objects that look like they're going to do something, but you don't know what. On his workbench is a long wooden box with a horn at one end and a plastic dog at the other. Johnson fiddles with a switch that will make the horn sound and the dog's head turn in just the right sequence. He likes the minimal elements — the wood and the dreadful plastic of the dog are close enough in colour to elicit a closer look. But the simple motion of turning the head is a big challenge in terms of mechanical design. This is where his compulsion to discover and invent fuses with his conviction that art is about adventure and a certain oblique view on society. The plastic dog has one cocked ear and perpetually surprised eyes. Viewers of Everything Must Go will have the same response.