art A Space of One’s Own
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.