art A Space of One’s Own

Quentin Sprague on He­len John­son

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Quentin Sprague on He­len John­son

Some works, the painter He­len John­son ex­plained to me re­cently, can’t help but take on dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters as they find their form in the stu­dio. Some are less likeable than oth­ers, needy even. Ear­lier this year, she was push­ing a new se­ries to­wards a loom­ing ex­hi­bi­tion dead­line, and one paint­ing was prov­ing par­tic­u­larly re­cal­ci­trant. Be­fore she knew it she had oblit­er­ated one layer af­ter an­other. “If this paint­ing were a per­son,” she told her stu­dio as­sis­tants at the time, “I wouldn’t be friends with it at all.” John­son, a thought­ful fig­ure in her late 30s, works from a stu­dio in Eltham, the bushy sub­urb in Mel­bourne’s north-east. The area is known for its creative his­tory – Montsal­vat, the fa­mous com­mu­nal artist vil­lage, was es­tab­lished there in the 1930s – but this had lit­tle to do with John­son’s de­ci­sion to push out­wards from the ex­pen­sive city stu­dios in which she had pre­vi­ously worked. She grew up rel­a­tively nearby in Croy­don and Ring­wood East, and was sim­ply “seek­ing the same kind of vibe” she re­called from her youth: a place where the sub­urbs fold seam­lessly into the bush; where, if she wanted to, she could take a sum­mer­time swim in the river with her stu­dio as­sis­tants (she has two part-time as­sis­tants, both of them young artists), or clear her head by walk­ing among the trees. Not that you can see the bush from John­son’s stu­dio: it’s wedged be­tween a tyre-re­pair busi­ness and a shop­fit­ter in one of Eltham’s in­dus­tri­ally zoned pock­ets. On my visit, sun­light flooded into the al­most monas­ti­cally un­adorned space from the sky­lights above. Ev­ery­thing ap­peared in its right place. In­deed, the stu­dio seemed so func­tional that it took a beat or two to recog­nise an ob­vi­ous ab­sence: there were no paint­ings. The rea­son for this was sim­ple: af­ter re­cently re­turn­ing home from New York, John­son had been en­joy­ing some down­time. “I’ve just been spend­ing my time cook­ing and sewing and pulling weeds out of the gar­den,” she said. Her solo ex­hi­bi­tion Ends opened at the New Mu­seum in Man­hat­tan’s Bow­ery dis­trict in mid Septem­ber. It was an un­prece­dented coup for the young Aus­tralian artist, but John­son was nonethe­less keen to re­turn home: “This is the first time since 2013 I haven’t had a press­ing dead­line, so I wanted to recharge my bat­ter­ies,” she said. She set­tled into a tat­tered brown stu­dio couch and opened a lap­top on which to view im­ages of paint­ings that in the last few months had taken shape in the sur­round­ing space. “Next year I’ll be paint­ing again, but not with par­tic­u­lar shows in mind.” John­son has shown her work reg­u­larly since the early 2000s, but has more re­cently se­cured her name with large, metic­u­lously struc­tured can­vasses that make a kind of cal­cu­lated mess of var­i­ous his­to­ries. There’s the his­tory of paint­ing, which John­son dips in and out of with the aplomb of the post-post­mod­ern gen­er­a­tion: those, that is, for whom dig­i­tal noise has ren­dered ev­ery­thing equal, and any im­age is fodder to be re­worked. Then there’s the his­tory of coloni­sa­tion, which she evokes in a vast, ab­stract-seem­ing sense. In A Feast of Rea­son and a Flow of Soul, from 2016 – a ti­tle that traces its lin­eage to a de­bauched 1797 po­lit­i­cal car­toon by the fa­ther of the genre, James Gill­ray – one of a num­ber of over­laid im­ages de­picts a clus­ter of men in pea coats and top hats. One checks his pocket watch, an­other points the glow­ing tip of his cigar sky­wards, but these are more than fat cats gath­ered to fill their mon­ey­bags. The paint­ing is based on an 1856 car­toon of the found­ing of Mel­bourne: the fig­ure to the left wields a draft­ing com­pass over a newly di­vided map of cen­tral Vic­to­ria. On in­spec­tion, the un­der­ly­ing im­age di­vulges a sim­i­lar gang of well-dressed colo­nials: an­other pe­riod car­toon, this one of a din­ner of dig­ni­taries un­rav­el­ling into drunken chaos. No sur­prise, then, that the charge of lop­sided colo­nial trade plays across the work’s sur­face, a sense of de­ci­sions made by white men to the detri­ment of coloured oth­ers. “In Aus­tralia, there’s al­ways go­ing to be this rot­ten foun­da­tion in place that’s go­ing to have to be ac­knowl­edged and ad­dressed,” John­son said. From this per­spec­tive, it would be easy to wholly char­ac­terise her work as a kind of eth­i­cal cor­rec­tion to ac­cepted his­to­ries, but this is not strictly the case. “It’s not like these paint­ings are try­ing to de­pict things that ac­tu­ally hap­pened,” she con­tin­ued. “I think it’s more like: How do you make a paint­ing that ac­knowl­edges the ab­so­lute lim­i­ta­tions of the ways in which his­tory gets con­structed?” Given the ma­te­rial, you might be sur­prised by how vis­ually se­duc­tive John­son’s work usu­ally is. Her paint­ings tend to draw view­ers close long be­fore they di­vulge any po­lit­i­cal lean­ing. Part of this comes down to in­ven­tive pre­sen­ta­tion: paint­ing is an old form, but John­son makes of it some­thing new. She of­ten shows her works un­stretched and hung from pur­pose-de­signed metal scaf­folds, as if they were large mul­ti­coloured quilts set to dry

“In Aus­tralia, there’s al­ways go­ing to be this rot­ten foun­da­tion in place that’s go­ing to have to be ac­knowl­edged and ad­dressed”

in the sun. In her ex­hi­bi­tion Warm Ties, held ear­lier this year at the In­sti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Arts in Lon­don (it trav­els to Artspace in Syd­ney in Jan­uary 2018), the sup­port struc­ture zigzagged down the cen­tre of a long gallery. It’s a sim­ple yet ef­fec­tive method of dis­play that deftly moves her paint­ings off the wall; the viewer has to walk around them, rather than sim­ply view them flat. To em­pha­sise this, John­son of­ten writes or draws on the un­primed re­verse of each: a list of po­ten­tial ti­tles, per­haps, or sketched out­lines of a colo­nial-era paint­ing that chimes con­cep­tu­ally with im­ages on the other side. “I like the idea that peo­ple en­counter the paint­ing from the front, and then they cir­cle around and ac­quire some other kind of in­for­ma­tion, and then they cir­cle around again and en­counter the front anew,” she said. “The idea that the viewer’s per­cep­tion can be changed just by walk­ing around in that cir­cle: to me, there’s prom­ise in that.” On the back of one work – Im­po­tent Ob­server, from 2016 – she tran­scribes in neat free­hand the full text of a re­port in the Guardian ti­tled ‘Peter Dut­ton calls for a pro-Christ­mas up­ris­ing against “po­lit­i­cal correctness gone mad”’. It’s tongue in cheek, but for John­son hu­mour is al­ways strate­gic: “It’s about a shared men­tal­ity,” she ex­plained in re­la­tion to the Dut­ton ref­er­ence. “It shows a di­rect line from the cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ist at­ti­tudes of the early colonists to now.” If all this sounds con­cep­tu­ally heavy-handed, fear not. Light­heart­ed­ness moves like oxy­gen through John­son’s work. At one level she achieves this through purely for­mal means: she ap­plies paint with strik­ing con­fi­dence and va­ri­ety. It can be a thin, gauze-like wash, or a thickly scraped swathe. It might be sprayed or stip­pled or, in a sig­na­ture in­ven­tion, pressed when wet by dif­fer­ent kinds of cloth: a kind of in­ver­sion of the age-old draw­ing method of frot­tage, in which pa­per is placed over a tex­tured sur­face and rubbed with char­coal. Of­ten she drags a comb-like brush across the still-wet sur­face, leav­ing in its wake neat fur­rows that align with a par­tic­u­lar form: a fig­ure’s sweater, or the facets of a stylised face. Re­cently, she be­gan press­ing loose bun­dles of tied string against wet paint­ings as a means to de­scribe the in­tri­cate pat­terns of hu­man hair. Her im­ages can also be funny, in both senses of the word: wry and slightly odd. Car­toons, both old and new, are a re­cur­rent fea­ture. A bot­tom cor­ner of A Feast of Rea­son and a Flow of Soul is en­livened by the stylised fig­ure of a thief, com­plete with a black-and-white striped skivvy and bag of loot over one shoul­der. As with the Dut­ton text, it’s de­ployed with pur­pose: it dou­bles down on the read­ing that the fig­ures who pop­u­late the paint­ing above are rob­ber barons of the high­est or­der. Hu­mour of­ten al­lows John­son to treat her con­cerns obliquely, some­times even coyly. She pointed out that Is­land ( Thief ), a work from 2014 that was shown at Mel­bourne’s Sut­ton Gallery, ex­am­ines “the po­si­tion that is­lands have al­ways in­hab­ited in the colo­nial Aus­tralian un­con­scious where they’re si­mul­ta­ne­ously places of in­car­cer­a­tion and places of escape and par­adise”. Not that you’d know this from look­ing at the paint­ing. It’s self-con­sciously whim­si­cal: a stylised trop­i­cal is­land float­ing on a striped pas­tel back­drop, a dis­em­bod­ied hand ges­tur­ing from be­hind a car­toon palm tree. A news­pa­per re­view of John­son’s Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tion trum­peted “the fe­ro­cious anti-colo­nial art of He­len John­son”, but the de­scrip­tion makes her un­com­fort­able. It’s not sim­ply that she’s wary of be­ing boxed in: she’s also care­ful to ac­knowl­edge that as a white Aus­tralian she speaks from a po­si­tion of priv­i­lege, some­thing that has of­ten gone un­noted in writ­ing on her work. Per­haps to this end, the paint­ings John­son showed in New York were far more per­sonal. Sim­i­lar con­cerns re­mained, but John­son lay­ered them with her own his­tory: the group of six large works be­gan with sto­ries from a fam­ily tree her mother works on. One took as its ba­sis a paint­ing by her grand­mother, who lived in the UK. She vis­ited Aus­tralia in 1980 to meet a one-year-old John­son for the first time and on her re­turn home painted from mem­ory a scene that con­flated St Kilda Beach with a Dan­de­nongs bush­scape, a kind of pre­cur­sor to the over­laid im­ages John­son her­self em­ploys. This shift in emo­tional tenor comes in step with oth­ers. In the midst of her re­cent suc­cess, John­son’s mind had in­creas­ingly turned to­wards the ques­tion of how to main­tain a work­able bal­ance in an art world that at times can seem, as she put it, to “prompt peo­ple to com­bust and burn out”. “When you’re young and some­one of­fers you an op­por­tu­nity, you just grab ev­ery­thing that comes your way,” she said. “Even five years ago, if I had a dead­line I wouldn’t think any­thing of work­ing seven days a week, and work­ing at night, and giv­ing all of my en­ergy to art. And you get to a point where you re­alise that’s not sus­tain­able and you’re ac­tu­ally sort of self-ex­ploit­ing.” Around us, the stu­dio lay dor­mant, but the la­tent en­ergy of it was still clear: high shelves held neat rows of art ma­te­ri­als, a line of brushes hung ready for the painter’s hand. With the com­ing year free from com­mit­ments it’s time for a cal­cu­lated dis­en­gage­ment, but paint­ing will re­main cen­tral. In­deed, the shape of new work is al­ready tak­ing form in John­son’s mind. It’s sim­ply a mat­ter of carv­ing out a space in which it can come to life on its own terms.

In the midst of her re­cent suc­cess, John­son’s mind had in­creas­ingly turned to­wards the ques­tion of how to main­tain a work­able bal­ance.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.