Cutting The Edge: Sarah Anne Johnson
Sarah Anne Johnson enhances her photographs the way light does water. However worthy in their own right, the images are ever more fragile, telling, and seductive after the artist’s permutations. Her last two exhibitions, both of which showed in 2013 at New York’s Julie Saul Gallery, included photos that have been cut, collaged, painted, and drawn on. The result is a ferociously purposeful body of work; a partial return to the heyday of manual photography and an answer to the limitations of a photograph.
Johnson, who grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, began pursuing photography seriously while receiving her MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2004—though she quickly came to question the medium. “I’ve always found straight photography to be limiting in what it can say,” Johnson says. “It can show what something looks like but it can’t show complex thoughts or feelings about a subject. I want to show what something looks like and what it feels like.”
Manipulating her images became a reliable solution. In Arctic Wonderland, the artist’s earlier series, pyrotechnic clouds and towering three dimensional shapes are deposited into glacial landscapes. A meditation on climate change—a particularly sore subject for the Canadian considering her country’s recent injurious environmental policies—the collection speaks to both current vulnerabilities and potential outcomes. “Some of the photographs…are a look to the future and some are grounded in the present,” Johnson explains. “The photos that look ahead depict different possible futures—some are bleak, some hopeful.” Although arguably less visually appealing, the images that comment on the present are certainly her most relevant, illustrating our often empty support for environmental sustainability. It’s the sort of work we ought to heed.
Johnson’s subsequent exhibit, Wonderlust, took on the more interior subject matter of relationship and selfhood. Images of couples in sexually intimate moments are augmented by subtle, phantasmagorical details: a pair of lovers is speckled with bronze; a figure is completely gold leafed; a woman, her legs splayed, is adorned with a clown’s nose and a ruff. “I was very aware that this particular leap would ruffle some feathers, and I almost didn’t make the work because I was worried about what the art world would think,” she says of the shift. “There are so many more rules of art-making conduct in visual art than in other areas.” Regardless, the transition felt natural, and this series is an even more acute display of the artist’s objective to bring sentience to scene.
Despite photographing other couples, the work is meant to be autobiographical. “This is really very much about me, my issues with intimacy and sexuality,” Johnson reveals. “Love, romance, feelings of inadequacy and boredom. I wasn’t trying to speak for everyone in the world—only myself.” Still, Wonderlust stands as a reformation of the general portrayal of sex in art. Unlike other erotic work, so much of which borders on pornographic, Johnson’s restores lovemaking to a tenderness that today’s desensitized culture often misses. The images seem to cure you, if only momentarily, of detachment; you’re struck by the emotional terrain of a relationship instead of a presentation of carnal exhibitionism.
In both collections, and prior work as well, Johnson’s art sets the real-life circumstances of personhood against the fey qualities of surrealism. An amalgam of how we appear to be and how we are, her oeuvre begs of us self-reflection.
Sarah’s WILD Wish: I just want to maintain what I have. Life is good right now. I have just the right amount of reward and struggle to keep things interesting. I wouldn’t want to throw it off balance. That being said, if I had the opportunity to fly over a rainbow naked on the back of a unicorn, I wouldn’t pass it up.