Artist Presentation
Chris Johnson: Personal Works and New Genre Creative Projects Synopsis


Synopsis by Jeffrey A. Nilan



Chris 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.

Johnson 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 him.

Johnson 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.’

After 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.

Chris 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.

Finally, 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.



Analysis by Carol Golemboski



Through 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.

Johnson 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.

Johnson's 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.

Following 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 attention.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Johnson's 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?