Sarah Anne Johnson, "Long Arms (Wonderlust)", 2013
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Long Arms (Wonderlust)", 2013, sanded chromogenic print with oil paint, 42” x 28”
Call them the Winnipeg Generation, a group that includes the Royal Art Lodge and many not-Art-Lodge Winnipeggers who were born in the 1970s and attended the University of Manitoba in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many of them are now ripe for mid-career surveys.
But it’s Sarah Anne Johnson, although amongst the youngest, who was the first to have a mid-career museum survey, earlier this year at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum in North Carolina. Johnson completed a Yale MFA after finishing a Winnipeg BFA a dozen or so years ago. She also had some training in theatre. The Yale program is exclusive, and it confers advantages, but its exclusivity and visibility to New York’s art world guarantees very little. Yale gave Johnson a step up, but not that big a step up.
The Winnipeggers who get places at Yale or Columbia or Parsons are usually the most financially strapped people in the program, as was Johnson in hers. Other students are often trust-funders and often very young and often, as in most schools, not committed to art as a career. The frustrations are innumerable for Canadian students at American grad schools, but I have never met a Winnipeg artist who regretted the experience. That said, it’s worth mentioning that many of the famous Winnipeg Generation artists did not go to grad school in the United States, Canada or anywhere else, and have not suffered for it.
Yale was still wedded to chemical photo processing when Johnson attended. In fact, she did not learn digital techniques until after she graduated. Since Johnson and Yale were both late adapters to photography’s digital revolution one might assume her MFA background had something to do with her practice of painting and scratching directly on her prints, with Photoshop only a secondary technique of hidden operations. However, my guess is that the handling has more to do with her Winnipeg roots, that DIY look that’s so common in Winnipeg. She “retouches” photographs, that is, she paints directly on the print, which makes each piece a unique object.
Perhaps Johnson’s retouching techniques – and her photographs of Sculpey dioramas – are a response to the crisis in contemporary photography brought on by the ubiquity of Internet images. It has not escaped the attention of serious contemporary photographers that while they agonize over every image, the rest of us upload millions of photographs every day to social networking sites. Serious photographers the world over must cope with this surplus and justify their art in the face of it. Johnson’s taking-up of handwork happened, as with so many Winnipeggers, just as this over-photographed era was beginning. Her manipulation of photographic surfaces is especially welcome as a corrective to the cult of the pristine photographic print, a form that has survived more than 150 years of an elevating discourse, and one which thrives as never before in today’s production of huge digital prints, those acres of textureless photographs that cover gallery walls like wallpaper.
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Wrestling (The Galapagos Project)", 2005
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Wrestling (The Galapagos Project)", 2005, chromogenic print, 11” x 14”
Johnson got gallery representation right after Yale from the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, and became well known when the Guggenheim Museum in New York bought a complete set of photographic prints from her Tree Planting series, a coup organized by Saul and her collectors. It consists of documentary photographs, some manipulated, and pictures of Sculpey set-ups, little dioramas, but without scratching or painting on the prints. Tree Planting was singled out by Roberta Smith, of the New York Times, in a glowing review when it debuted at the Guggenheim.
I remember talking to Saul when she first showed the Tree Planting work at her gallery. She said, half-jokingly, that at first she thought tree planting was some kind of kibbutz experience for Canadian kids. The grueling summer job seemed quite exotic to many New Yorkers.
Unlike the Royal Art Lodge and Winnipeg’s 26 collective, Johnson has always been a loner, and has sought her own adventures and projects, some at home and others abroad. Like her Winnipeg elders, Wanda Koop, William Eakin and Eleanor Bond, she travels a lot, and uses every extended trip as an opportunity to make art.
She has established a work pattern that swings from reflections on personal subjects to meditations on far-flung adventures. Tree Planting in 2005, her trip to the Galapagos Islands in 2007, and a Norwegian foray that resulted in her Arctic Wonderland of 2011 are notable as long-distance projects. Her House on Fire in 2009, the related Dancing with the Doctor performance work of 2010, and the Wonderlust set of 2013 unravel personal and family ties in complex works that incorporate photography, painting, sculpture and performance.
Photography is Johnson’s core medium, the one from which other work grows through iteration and bricolage. Again, some of work has a do-it-yourself feel, or at times even an outsider sensibility, like that of many of her Winnipeg compatriots. Her sculpted figures, for example, do not exactly meet Renaissance ideals, but her constructed dollhouses and straight photographs are things only a professional could make. And that professional is the artist herself, since she rarely hires assistants.
Sarah Anne Johnson, "House on Fire", 2009
Sarah Anne Johnson, "House on Fire", 2009, mixed media, 41” x 43” x 52”
A first look at a Johnson exhibition is often a matter of matching various levels of technical finesse to various levels of rawness in the subject matter: as a rule the more fraught, emotional and romantic the subject matter, the rougher the technical treatment.
Interestingly, Johnson’s The Galapagos Project does not address Charles Darwin at all – there’s no reference to the islands as the birthplace of his idea of evolution. Nor does she make it a mourning song to endangered species or a cautionary tale about evolution somehow gone wrong. Her work is anything but a National Geographic documentary. Rather, her subject is a curious form of educational tourism in which privileged young people from around the world take up residence in these remote isles in order to assist local government agencies with what is enigmatically called “agricultural rehabilitation.” Johnson takes on the anxieties of such experience-based travel, exposing the awkward heart of this strange gap-year challenge for the wealthy.
Johnson always has an eye on the mythological potential of her fractured wordless stories. Like the tree planting works, The Galapagos Project charts contemporary rites of passage. But these series also call to mind the initiation rites of traditional societies that subject youths to encounters with jungle and bush. She does not make environmentalist claims for her art. The carbon bombing of international air travel and the chemistries of photo production tend to usurp any claims of environmentalism and, thankfully, Johnson does not play that game.
Her Arctic Wonderland series is an unexpected foray into Norway, not, as might be expected, the Canadian North. Instead of work about the Manitoba polar bear, which already has a worldwide audience, Johnson switched things up and took a trip up the fjords, perhaps as a reminder that in addition to the innumerable “norths” of Canada, there are many others elsewhere.
Meanwhile, on the personal side of her practice, Wonderlust has a place amidst contemporary projects by other artists who dabble with alternatives to mainstream porn and attempt to imagine a more equitable and less exploitative future for it. Replete with her trademark drawing and painting and scratching on prints, in this case with added clown noses and clown boots, these images seem somehow more real than the amateur video that is today’s most popular form of pornography. The tactility of her play is a reminder of the tactility of sex, and that visuality isn’t, or shouldn’t be, everything in porn.
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Dancing with the Doctor", 2011
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Dancing with the Doctor", 2011, choreographed performance piece
Johnson’s House on Fire and Dancing with the Doctor, read like documentation from inside a psychotic episode. The subject is her grandmother’s CIA-sponsored psychiatric treatment in the 1950s, a true story that seems like head-scratching fiction. Johnson imagines what her grandmother felt as doctors abused her. She tucks into the work an occasional image of herself as a child, perhaps to heighten the psychic distance from the torture.
I saw a performance of Dancing with the Doctor at aceartinc in Winnipeg and it was harrowing and beautiful. We associate boxes on heads with virtual reality these days, but Johnson uses the motif in a horror story of confinement and helplessness. Unlike many performances by artists, this one was unabashedly theatrical and, so far, a unique instance of the genre in her work.
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Fireworks (Arctic Wonderland)", 2010
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Fireworks (Arctic Wonderland)", 2010, chromogenic print, photospotting and acrylic inks, gouache and India ink, 28” x 42”
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Sad Clown (Wonderlust)", 2013
Sarah Anne Johnson, "Sad Clown (Wonderlust)", 2013, digital chromogenic print with oil paint, 30” x 20”
She is working on new versions of House on Fire and Dancing with the Doctor for an exhibition opening Dec. 5 at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery in Lethbridge, Alta. It’s the start of a major project that she says will take years to complete. “I am building all the rooms from the dollhouse from House on Fire as film sets and filming myself performing in them,” she says. “I decided years ago, after I had built the dollhouse, that I wanted to bring it to life because some ideas are best realized through a time-based medium.” The first video installation, to be shown in Lethbridge, is called Hospital Hallway. She will exhibit the film set, which looks like an institutional hallway, but in the never-ending shape of an octagon. Inside, are 15 television screens, each showing Johnson dressed in a costume that represents her grandmother. Johnson, who’s on the short list for this year’s prestigious Sobey Art Award, given to artists under 40, is also showing the same work this fall as part of the award exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
By Cliff Eyland