Briefly describe the work you do.
I make drawings and installation/performances that engage the absurd overlays between the luscious and the decayed; the image and experience. I use organic, decomposing materials in my work and directly on paper, as well as digitally altered photographs, to make images that span and confabulate time and space, reality and fiction.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
Much of my childhood was spent moving- each place had a different flavor, a different pace. This constant shifting, with the vague spaces in between, I think gave me the ability and tendency to use multiple methods of making art in tandem, along with my work’s transient, loosely-defined visual qualities. I’m comfortable working like this and always have been.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Because my work uses so many processes at once, I spend my time doing what the method of the moment requires: building, photographing, cooking, cutting, painting and drawing. A lot of my time is spent looking, however, and determining the shape of things. Much of my working does take place in the studio, but some of it happens in the kitchen, or at the grocery store. New ideas tend to come to me while driving, looking at other artists’ work quietly, or in dreams.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
My final year of my undergraduate education really crystalized my identity as an artist as not only being an object-maker, but an experience-maker as well. It was not until my second year of graduate school, however, that I realized that these experiences didn’t have to happen outside of me and without me, but could also depend on my presence for it’s existence and lifeblood.
I took an installation class with artist Millie Chen, and as I consulted with her on the production of my final work for the class, she suggested that what I was making called for a performativity to give the desired experience to viewers. This frightened me a bit, actually- I had always been able to make my work and step back from it- but I followed through, allowed myself to stay with it and become a character in the work I had built. Performance now plays a role of sustenance to my two-dimensional practice.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I am usually very disciplined with my time, and do believe in clocking in the hours to fully realize a piece. Anytime is good time for me, although nighttime seems to be made for expressive modes of working, and morning for analytical and rote activities.
Recently, I have experienced firsthand the value of John Cage and Sister Corita’s “Rules” #8: “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes”. Post-graduate school time has afforded me the opportunity to really analyze, re-contextualize, and reevaluate my work. As a result of this slow analyzing and thinking process, my mind is now bubbling with ideas and possibilities for the further development of my work. Anything is possible, and my brain feels like it’s on creative overdrive.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
The three years spent in graduate school greatly developed my work. It was in the summer of 2011 that I began making the work that I’m making now- previously I was making drawings, prints and paintings that had to do with unarticulated memory. Although it seems conceptually disparate from my current projects, there is a similarity between the two in that both describe intersections between object and experience, and shifting, transient spaces. I see the next 5 years as an evolution in my current work- I feel that I can stay with this for years and never get to the bottom of what I’m exploring.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Conceptually, my work has been influenced by many philosophers and writers- deceased and contemporary: Kant, Angela Ndalianis, Carolyn Korsmeyer and Jean Baudrillard. Francis Connelly’s book Modern Art and the Grotesque is an excellent source with essays by many thinkers.
Artists, however, have had some of the greatest influence on my work: from close friends, to those I have never met and merely admire from afar.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I think I would enjoy physics or cosmology: I’m fascinated by possibilities and mind-boggling ideas that condense time and space. More practically, I might also be an attorney: I get a thrill out of piecing information together from multiple, disparate sources into a new whole.
Mary A. Johnson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1986) and is currently working in Buffalo, New York. She earned her BA from Gordon College in 2008, and her MFA in Visual Studies from the University at Buffalo: The State University of New York in 2013. Her most recent solo show was at the Castellani Museum of Art where among other works, she exhibited a 40 foot long drawing.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.