Friday, July 8, 2011

Q&A with Sarah Anne Johnson in the National Post

Last month, when she opened her new series, Arctic Wonderland, at Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, Winnipeg artist Sarah Anne Johnson was nice enough to sit down with me and chat about this work.

Johnson is always experimenting with different ways to expand the limits of photography--or at least that's the way I see it--and in this latest series that involved experimenting with painting, embossing, and silkscreening on her photographs, as well as using, oh yes, Photoshop. She's had a lot of recognition for her work, including showings at the Guggenheim Museum and Fondation Cartier and being a finalist for this year's $50,000 Sobey Art Award.

A condensed version of our conversation was published in yesterday's National Post. The Post also has a nice online version posted on its arts blog the Ampersand. An excerpt:

Q Your new show offers an unusual mix of celebration and desolation. Why?

A On some Arctic trips, artists are expected to make really serious work, because it’s horrible what’s happening to the world and we need to get the message out and all that. So I had this idea that I wanted to take pictures of the artists posing as cheerleaders. Because that’s what we are in a way, we’re like “Go, Arctic, go!” I was also thinking about hope and the problem of hope. One day I feel total doom and gloom, like, “That’s it, we’re going to hell in a handbasket,” and the next day I’m like, “No, we’ll sort it out somehow” — which logically, I don’t believe, but hope is this blind feeling of “Yay, humans!” I was also thinking about the human tendency toward, “Let’s get these big ideas and barrel ahead without always thinking of the consequences.” So there’s fireworks and celebrations, but look, these people are going to drown in their own confetti soon! Just because we’re a brilliant species and we can do all these things doesn’t mean that we should.

Q Your self-critical approach to this Arctic trip mirrors your self-critical approach to photography — you’ve always thrown something into the mix to point out the limits of what photos can do. Are you aware of that?

A Oh, completely. I feel great frustration with representing ideas through photography. Because photography can show you what something looks like, but I’m interested in using it to illustrate a whole experience. And the whole experience isn’t just what it looked like, it’s what you learned from it, it’s how it changed you. And a lot of that stuff happens after you take the pictures. When I got home, I didn’t look at these Arctic pictures for five months so I could distance myself and just see the photograph for what it is — this rectangular, two-dimensional flat thing on the wall — and then go, “OK, this is my blank canvas. Now how do I get in there and express all the stuff I learned?” That’s when I started painting them.

For more, read on at the Ampersand. To view images from the show (like the crazy confetti ones she talks about further along) head to the Stephen Bulger Gallery website, or, heck, to the gallery itself--the show is up until July 16.

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