Experience and desire without inhibition from fetters, enables the birth of hybridity. From the Greeks for instance a new generation of gods came to be. Zeus as a swan mated with Leda and Venus was born to become the Goddess of love. But first, Zeus needed to transform and Leda had to be able to accept a swan—these must have been challenging ideas to grapple at the time. Yet Love came into being.
Ashley Johnson emigrated from South Africa with a young family, leaving behind a volatile political climate. Many artists from his country make prodding visuals encouraging positive social action such as Diane Victor’s large-scale drawings or William Kentridge’s films. Life in SA could be rough and Johnson relates, “I never had the experience but people going to work would hear on the news where these gangs of youths were working. They would wait at intersections, ostensibly begging for money or work. Cars would be lined up unable to move due to congestion. The thieves had sparkplugs on the end of fishing line. They would flick the spark plug at a car window, which would shatter. Then they would grab handbags or anything else lying around.”
With this unique background, Johnson, from 1995 to 2014 painted Primal, a painting series that causes a gut stir, a recognition that plunges into the heart of the foreign. The paintings combine animals and humans in shocking combinations. The strangeness of the subject matter arrests but internally there is a niggling recognition. We are culturally bred out of animalistic behavior in actual life yet something rings a bell as if a previous incarnation has seeped through the fabric of normality. Along with each image Johnson, who is also a writer (and deep reader) wrote a statement that lends background to the images. Many of the stories expose a background that is not common to Canada and yet are also universal—stories from the nether world.
While the writing fills out the visual, it doesn’t preach nor does it excuse but tangential potential exerts an indelible impression and with visceral insistence begs to be acknowledged.
“To my mind, reality is a figment of the imagination,” Johnson’s text on Anomalous Position reads. The painting addresses a mistrust of the Darwinian neatness of evolution. He goes on—“By this I mean that the creative chaos of possibility is the flux of existence.”
Unfamiliar subject matter is made more pungent by Johnson’s skill as a painter so that the combinations of diverse and obtuse parts become palatable. The imagery is provocative rather than alienating; couched in beautiful opalescent tones, anatomically adjusted and compositionally balanced but these works are not meant as a demonstration or a flourish of skill. Made to awaken a grander conscience, Johnson’s work is meant for public exposure because it has such visual force that it can potentially move agendas and align social injustices.
War, aid or diplomatic workers who have spent time in foreign countries where the stakes are continually high can have trouble adjusting as ennui sets in once they are relocated to safe and comprehensible existences. Johnson, a burly man sensitive to injustice in the relative security of Canadian living, is still bothered. His latest grand opuses have focused on animal rights and the escaping environmental equilibrium from that which nature had put into place before “civilization” interfered.1 Johnson makes paintings that are bridges between that which is and that which should or could, decently, be.
From primarily realistic images he has recently again introduced abstraction. His motivation determines the means to his expression, oscillating methods in order to accentuate meaning and allowing him to skirt the interference of classification. Realism is often a path into the work but that-left-unfinished grants areas where the viewer can enter and fill in as well. He calls this exchange “chaosmosis”, a Felix Guattari concept whereby releasing the boundaries of representation enables flow.
For Xenotransplant Johnson created a unidirectional sound track of a simulated conversation between a scientist and a female interviewer discussing the relative merits of experimental practices using his own voice for all the arguments. Standing in front of the painting, the sound track can be heard but moving away there is silence. Aimed at addressing time and timelessness, he finishes by talking to his mother who relates stories of her childhood pet, a baboon called Johnson, bringing the objective conversation back into the personal.
The reformative works of George Grosz or Otto Dix reflected on parts of society that needed to be brought into the art world. For Johnson, the political is less important than the exposure. He admits that darker aspects sometimes fascinate him more than the benign, allowing under- represented patches of existence to gain a foothold as art becomes a biological extension of his humanity.
Johnson has managed to loosen an identity that had been stuck on—the narrow strictures of the status quo that comes with our upbringing. We all may do well do shake free.
(1) See Dancing on the Edge and Johnson’s painting Fin Vies des Arts, Fall 2017