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Having a Moment

Stealing a view of great art high atop a bank tower

In layman terms, artist Sarah Anne Johnson is killing it. In loftier jargon, her recent projects reflect a deepening narrative complexity, growing technical facility and an ambitious shift in scale that combine in incredibly powerful, immersive ways. In other words, her work has gone from strength to mind-blowing strength.

Based in Winnipeg, Johnson caught the art world’s attention with Tree Planting (2002-2005), her Yale University thesis project. This series of photographs record her experience over three summers of working in deforested areas in the northern Manitoba wilderness. The images capture the rugged landscape, utopian communal living, and gritty hard work integral to the tree-planting ethos. In the final installation however there is a surprise, as there always is in Johnson’s work. The more documentary photographs are complicated, turned on their head, and juxtaposed with complementary images created in the studio using dioramas and hand-crafted, Sculpey figurines representing other remembered moments from those summers. “The photographs of real people are grounded in reality,” she has said. “The photographs of the dolls are more about metaphor and memory.”

Together they depict a more fulsome, personal (and what she calls “quietly political”) representation of place and purpose and establish Johnson’s ongoing engagement with the interplay between fiction and veracity.

Half a world away in northern Norway, Johnson’s Arctic Wonderland (2011) series intensifies her focus on real and imagined places (few places have captured our imagination more than the Arctic). Her photographs beautifully document the vastness, sublime light and all of that slowly melting ice. Onto these images, Johnson goes to work adding painted, incised and embossed imagery such as fireworks, architecture and text. Ominous inky clouds hover over the grey sea while other more whimsical interventions include cheekily rendering her fellow artist-adventurers as cheerleaders, replete with painted-on pompoms and confetti. These layered details proffer a broad spectrum of emotion and humanity. “All my worries, all my concerns and all my hopes and fears of the future of this place, I can paint it right on,” Johnson has said.

Recently the project was exploded into three dimensions for Untitled (Schooner and Fireworks), installed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Dominated by a giant Technicolor firework/cloud hybrid hovering over a model schooner, like the one Johnson lived aboard for her Arctic residency and inhabited by carousing clay figurines, the installation dramatically highlights the tension between purity and mess, pleasure and guilt, doom and celebration.

For her latest work, Asleep in the Forest, Johnson brings the wilderness to Bay Street, which some might consider a different kind of wild. Commissioned by BMO (major kudos to them for the Project Room program and curator Dawn Cain for her discerning choices), Johnson was given the opportunity to produce a significant new work for the project space high atop a corporate tower (viewable only by appointment).

I hesitate to reveal too much about the piece, as part of its power is in the mystery of approaching a closed door and leaning in to peek through a brass peephole. The slow reveal astounds. It takes some moments before the eye can adjust to the single oculus and the dimly lit space beyond. It’s a nocturnal setting. Behind the door is a dense forest with a small clearing lit by a flickering campfire, reminiscent of those sculptural creations from Johnson’s earlier Tree Planting photographs. There are forest sounds. Two figures — men — are present by the fire, one sitting, one reclining, both sleeping, neither keeping watch. Around them are bags and piles of money, stacks of Canadian 20s, 50s, 100s. The clincher: The figures are wearing business suits and ties and are relatively unrumpled; they’ve just escaped, or run, or sought refuge in the wilderness. We’ve found them so quickly and no wonder, hiding in the forest is such a misplaced idea; we are so exposed there. Many possible narratives spring to mind, culled from the headlines and the movies but balanced by so much ambiguity, all heightened by the fact that we are in a bank tower in the financial district. And one experiences it alone; there is only one peephole.

I can’t believe my eyes.

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