Taking the ‘soulful assemblage’ concept to the nth is one of our favourite assemblage artists, Anita Johnson. For us, her art vibrates through a kind of visual poetry, layered as it is with humour, nostalgia and the politics of being human.
Top: Beneath the weight of the sheets, 2019, salvaged chairs, sheets, blanket, lead and beeswax, 85 x 125 x 45cm. Above: The Wandering Breath, industrial felt and collected objects. Courtesy the artist, Anita Larkin.
We especially love the way she plays with unexpected couplings, found objects quirkily reconstructed using her fave mediums – felt, leather, wood and wax.
Play and playfulness are central to Johnson’s process as she creates unexpected and darkly funny juxtapositions, compositions that reinterpret to create new and layered meaning. Underpinning her conceptual are her repositioned found objects, their histories (real or imagined) reassembled to create new visual narratives. Implicit in her found objects are their histories, a cricket ball retains its tangible essence, having been blown on and rubbed, thrown and caught by human hands. A broken ladder with its inherent symbolism is lovingly ‘repaired’ again with stockings and wax paper.
‘My work directly relates to how objects have a visceral or emotional effect on us often through memory’ – Anita Johnson
The Johnson piece that first captured our imaginations was the felt vacuum cleaner work titled ‘The Wandering Breath’ from her exhibition ‘Come To Me Without A Word’ at Wollongong Art Gallery last year. The whimsy and weight of this exhibition and her accompanying titles helped guide us through her gist and captured our hearts simultaneously. We also loved ‘Beneath The Weight Of The Sheets’ made from salvaged chairs, sheets, blankets (the pastel tartan ones we grew up with), love poems, lead and beeswax.
Top: Night paddling, detail, Anita Larkin / Above: Play me, mend me, salvaged violin parts, crutch, blanket
Johnson has described her passion for found objects and assemblage, the roots of which first sprouted during childhood visits to the tip with her father in the 70s. He would let her and her siblings collect whatever interested them as a take home and this is where she first thought to connect two random objects (a barbie doll and a bike wheel) in order to tell her new story and to ‘find the absurdity and humour within the broken – something strange and odd and funny about calamity and disaster’
‘My art practice focuses on our relationships with familiar objects and how they are connected to feelings of longing, invoke memory and explore language, place, and the feminine. I see salvaged objects to be akin to a type of shorthand material language, as they can instantly connect us to complex memories of events and emotions beyond words, discussing complex socio–political issues in a poetic way.
The objects I use in my artworks are salvaged from the tip or the verge and are originally from the domestic realm of the home. They have an intimacy with the human body, many are prosthetic sense objects in which our sense of boundary of the self is lost within the object. Chairs, tables, hot–water bottles, crutches, ladders, beds, cots, hand–tools, gloves, shoes and musical instruments, such objects can be strong sites of longing, fear, desire, loss and identity. I also like to play with language and the terminology of objects, to alter how we perceive a thing.
I am interested in alternative understandings of repair as opposed to restoration to former wholeness and utility. I make visible my gestures of repair toward broken objects and purposefully employ materials that have a reference to the human body materially. Felt, hair, wax and textiles, embody the object. I like to play with the curious suggestion that objects could be imagined to have parallel lives and hardships to our own. I repair them into new autonomous objects, free to leap across the room, to play, to retaliate, to be other than they are expected to be, to go beyond their objecthood. The ordinary object becomes a psychological object, the uncanny.’ ~ Anita Johnson
Johnson says she particularly likes objects that are marked by traces of the absent human through time in the wear and tear of regular use. There is an aesthetic of longing in these objects that inspires her.
‘Absence is also felt when functionality of the object is denied, and consequently we become aware of the very nature of the object itself, its presence. I also make casts (or ghosts) of objects in various materials, porcelain, bronze, felt and beeswax. I consider my body as a collected object to make work with. Making direct casts of my feet, hands, ears, lips and breasts; I thereby situate my work firmly within a feminine perspective.’
Johnson’s passion for ‘felt’ which she sees as an intriguing sculptural material, with one foot in our Neolithic nomadic past and one foot in industrial society, is beguiling. For her, felt is a material that doesn’t need machinery to convert it, it’s wool straight from the sheep and making it is a laboriously physical action, made directly with the hand, agitating the wool fibres to encourage them to entangle together. The performative element of felt–making lends vitality to the material that is often palpable.
‘Felt is a matrix, non–linear, without axis, constantly in flux, shifting during and after it’s forming. Often perceived to be a lowly material of necessity, it is found laying underneath the floorboards, in between the cogs in machines, inside musical instruments and wrapped around nomad’s houses. I engage felt as symbolic narrative, a healing substance, a sensory allure and an insulation device. Like other textiles of haptic allure, felt has an immediate intimacy with the viewer’s own body, but also to animal nature, often engaging direct visceral responses.’ ~ Anita Johnson
Johnson was born in Australia in 1971 and completed a Bachelor of Visual Arts at Sydney College of The Arts in 1993. She will complete her Doctor of Creative Arts at Wollongong University in 2022. Her PhD work focuses on concepts of brokenness and repair within her contemporary art practice. Johnson has exhibited extensively around Australia and has been represented by Defiance Gallery since 2002. Solo exhibitions have been at Defiance Gallery (2009, 2011, 2015, 2017), and Wollongong Art Gallery (2007, 2011, 2020). Johnson is also a sessional lecturer in sculpture at the National Art School.
Johnson′s work has also featured in numerous group exhibitions including The Wynne Prize at The Art Gallery of NSW (2006, 2008), Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi (2002, 2003), The UWS Acquisitive Sculpture Award (2004, 2006, 2010), The Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize (2009, 2012, 2015), The Blake Prize (2013, 2016), Sculptural Felt International (2015) Meroogal Womens Art Prize (2006, 2016, 2020) David Harold Tribe Sculpture Award (2008) The 2nd Tamworth Textile Triennial (2014), The 6th International World Textile Biennial of Contemporary Art, Mexico (2011) and The Beijing International Art Biennale (2012).