Johnson: Personal Works and New Genre Creative Projects Synopsis
by Jeffrey A. Nilan
Johnson presented a slide-and-video-illustrated talk outlining
his development as an artist and emphasized the transition in
his work from private to public forms of art making. He began
by talking about his work in traditional, large format, black
and white photography, into a period of experimentation with Polaroid
and other color photography, and finally leading to the more recent
socially concerned work he has been doing in video.
began with slides of his early work, black and white, large format
images, which he referred to as his rocks and trees
phase. This early work, he explained, was influenced by the images
of Wynn Bullock and did not seek to celebrate the wilderness but
rather focused on the dark undertone of nature. He
viewed this work as more psychologically driven than descriptive.
During this period of his career, Johnson became dissatisfied
with the photographs he was making and was beset with doubt --not
knowing why he was doing photography or what it really meant to
explained a shift that occurred in his photography after meeting
with Imogen Cunningham in the mid 1970s, from taking pictures
of rocks and trees to portraits. Strong formal concerns
and attention to light were still a main concern for Johnson at
this point, but the desire to make more meaningful images persisted.
A landmark image for Johnson, which he referred to as a turning
point that spurred a fundamental shift in his art-making,
came with a portrait he made of his grandfather. The photograph,
Johnson believed, was the first image he had made devoid
of a self-conscious desire to make art.
receiving a grant from Polaroid, Johnson began making images of
the nude female body. He explained that he had a desire to be
looser with his work by accessing his intuition and
therefore working in a more direct and immediate manner. The new
process was important in Johnson's career in that accidental
double exposures enabled him to manipulate while maintaining a
sense of discovery. In addition to the Polaroid work, Johnson
used 35 mm color work as a means to reconnect with his childhood
domain; a housing project in Brooklyn, New York, which was the
site of a major childhood event involving abuse by his mother.
He would later expand on this work through pieces that combined
self-portraits with text from his grandmother's journal writings.
Johnson's use of text derived from a desire to be more specific,
to speak more directly about the event that changed his life.
Johnson's desire to educate young people about the influence of
media on their consciousness led him to develop a media literacy
class called Define the Problem. The class was designed
to raise the consciousness of high school students through exercises
that attempted to strip away the tactics of advertising. The course
led to a collaborative performance piece in 1994 called The
Roof is on Fire. The event involved some 600 high school students
from the Oakland area, a parking lot full of rented cars, a diverse
group of adult onlookers, and a horde of people from the media.
A group of students were assigned to each car and left to freely
discuss issues without the intrusion of the adult onlookers. Johnson
and his collaborators, including Suzanne Lacy, believed the event
allowed for self-expression, giving the students an uninterrupted
voice, not dictated by any societal hierarchy. Johnson defined
his motivation for the project as dualistic, both allowing the
students freedom to express their ideas while also allowing the
adults an opportunity to shut-up and listen (an identifying
tag worn by the students). This he believed, would lead to greater
insight into the beliefs and concerns of the teenagers involved.
Johnson believes that the primary audience for the piece was the
participants, both students and listeners, stating that they
are going to be the most authentically impacted.
Chris Johnson showed a video piece titled Question Bridge,
from 1996-97. Johnson introduced the video as a piece that brought
together his need to be creative with his desire to confront social
issues. In Question Bridge, Johnson wanted to flesh out
the dilemma of class as a division in African-American
society. The format of the video consisted of a series of questions
asked and questions answered, each individually. Each question
is asked in private, then answered by another participant in private.
In this, Johnson wanted to set up a situation that would allow
the answer to stand uncontested. With the person asking the question
left to internalize the response rather than respond immediately,
Johnson hoped the largest voice would be kept from
dominating the dialogue. With Question Bridge, Chris Johnson
felt that he had finally bridged the gap between his earlier,
more private work, and his later, more socially conscious work.
by Carol Golemboski
slide and video presentations, Chris Johnson took us on a tour
of his personal and public work starting with pieces that address
personal, emotional, and psychological conflicts and ending with
projects that confront cultural issues of class and race. He shared
examples of images taken in the formative years of his artistic
career as a way to offer insight into his personal history, and
to explain how his work functioned in a process of self-discovery.
His more current work uses newer media of performance and video
to communicate ideas about negative stereotyping.
shared his early work to explain his history as an artist. Interested
in using photography as a way to explore his own psychology, he
created photographs about his relationships with women in an attempt
to work through personal experiences. His process relied on immediacy
and spontaneity as he approached a way of working that relied
on a more relaxed self-consciousness.
most significant formal work culminated in a triptych of photographs
in which he recognized a history of child abuse within his family
and reconciled himself with his mother. In this piece, he collaged
text from her journal entries with photographic self portraits
as a way to work through issues concerning her failing health
and his own painful childhood memories. He used text in this collage
as an emotional, philosophical and visual tool to generate meaning
about personal issues.
the creation of this triptych, Johnson completely altered his
style of creating art. Rather than making pieces that reflected
an inner state of mind, Johnson began work on projects that focused
on broader issues of class and race. He collaborated with Suzanne
Lacy to create a performance piece with high school students entitled
The Roof is on Fire. This project, which functioned to
give a voice to minority youth, attempts to refute the negative
depiction this group often receives from the media. Interested
in how the media shapes our conception of reality, Johnson wanted
to raise consciousness about teenage stereotypes and the danger
of prompting self-fulfilling prophecies through negative media
project provided students with an opportunity to voice unrehearsed
concerns in a format that was open and empowering. Undoubtedly,
it provided them with the satisfaction of having their perspective
noted, if at least briefly. Logistically, the design of the piece
was effective in some contexts and problematic in others. While
the students were given the opportunity to voice their opinions
without fear of rebuttal, the piece seemed unresolved because
it disallowed any audience response. Furthermore, the majority
of the people who learned about the piece probably weren't actually
on the site of the performance. The broadcasting of the performance
in the news, and the video that was made to document the piece
most likely reached a much greater audience. Through necessary
editing, this documentation would provide a different experience
than attending the actual performance. This raises questions about
how we can effectively document a performance and what we must
compromise in the process.
Roof is on Fire. also raises questions about the nature of
public art with social and political themes. While the students
who participated in the project may have enjoyed a few hours of
uninterrupted attention, what long-term effect did this effort
have on the way media depicts teenagers or on the lives of the
participants? Johnson admitted the difficulty in effecting any
real change in the lives of these students. Unfortunately, the
problem of creating a remedy for these issues is just too great
to be addressed in one evening. In this way, many socially motivated
art projects must rely on blind faith that they can make at least
a small contribution to these vast and complex problems.
final piece that Johnson shared, a video entitled Question
Bridge, addressed the issue of class as a division in the
Black community. Through this piece, Johnson aspired to create
a dialogue that would be open and informing without becoming a
platform for argument and debate among the participants. The piece
was effective as a way for members of different communities to
ask questions and receive answers in a comfortable zone. It succeeds
in provoking thought about how class plays a role in dividing
racial groups but is frustrating in the way that it confronts
charged issues and does not offer any resolution.
recent work highlights the benefits and frustrations of creating
social and political work. While the participants in both The
Roof is on Fire and Question Bridge may have had opportunities
to examine their positions, and voice their concerns, how do we
get work like this to reach a broad audience and really effect
social change? How important is dialogue and audience response
after viewing work of this nature? Finally, although an impact
on one person's life can certainly make contributions like these
pieces valuable, how can we raise awareness to the point where
we actually see some concrete results?