SCOTT JOHNSON.
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Scott Johnson rigs the artificial as a doorway to the natural.

A glass box contains a dozen shafts of tall, dry grass, rising up from dirt. That's what you see as you approach. But touch your nose to the glass, peer inside, and you are standing in a field of tall, dry grass, a field that reaches beyond the horizon.


Sticking out from a blank white canvas, a small metal platform displays a plain ceramic cup. Above the cup, light trembles and dances on the wall, making and remaking galaxies of pure illumination. Look down into the cup and all you see is water. Plain water has been bouncing light up onto the blank surface. The light and water are artists, revealed by the apparatus.


Scott Johnson uses reflections to ask us to reflect, on the awesome beauty of ordinary nature. By repositioning our gaze, he repositions us, not only as witnesses to beauty, but also as inhabitants of an already beautiful world that has been obscured--and is now revealed--by manufactured mediation. The medium summons the immediate.

Stephen Haff
Still Waters in a Storm
http://www.stillwatersinastorm.org/

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Elemental Cycles/Shades of Actaeon

 

Scott Johnson’s Recent Work

 

 

Scott Johnson is an artist whose work refuses easy categorization.  This is in part because he works in many different media—performance, installation, sculpture, video, and photography—but more importantly because Johnson’s work celebrates a certain indeterminacy between the mediated and the immediate, the philosophical and the perceptual.  What is given to the eye is always also something other than the work itself, while what is given for thinking always also takes one back to the perceptual experience.

 

 

Turnings of fire:  first sea, and of sea half is earth, while half is lightning-flash.  (Herakleitos 31a)

 

Consider Rendering Dew (2001):  this performance piece involves objects simultaneously sculptural and functional—a large swath of thin cloth, a handcrafted wooden wringer, a rod—but it also involves the natural processes of condensation and evaporation.  These objects and processes come together in the artist’s actions of staking the cloth outdoors at the end of the day, of retrieving the dew-laden cloth in the morning, of wringing the moisture from the cloth, of “painting” an interior floor with the collected moisture, of hanging the cloth to dry on the rod, and of allowing the floor to dry.  The objects that make up Rendering Dew are meaningful only in relation to the artist’s actions.  These actions are in turn only meaningful in relation to the elemental cycles that result in dew.  To see such natural cycles as meaningful brings one back to the cloth, the wringer, and the rod.  The hermeneutic resonance of each aspect of the work—object, action, process—depends upon something temporally other than that aspect:  what is perceived now calls upon the imperceptible then, while the unperceived then calls upon the perceptible now.  The elemental cycles of condensation and evaporation are themselves enacted in the hermeneutic cycles that constitute Rendering Dew.  Temporal relations of cause and effect, purpose and action, suffuse the perceptual components of the work, enriching but also destabilizing the simple, immediate givenness of what is perceived.

 

Simple, immediate givenness:  on first glance, this might seem to characterize Angles of Repose (2008).  What is seen is little more than a more-or-less symmetrical heap of black sand situated in front of mirrors in such a way as to appear conical in shape.  On second or third glance—some time later—the symmetries of the piece have shifted, and the mirrors no longer reflect anything conical.  Subtitled The Asymmetry of Time, Angles of Repose effectively performs its own unfolding, its own collapse.  The inert object given to perception actually reflects its own history in time, while the moment of seeing it evokes other possible moments of seeing.  Sculptural object or long-duration performance, Johnson’s work provokes an experience of indeterminacy, an experience that—once provoked—is inseparable from the object itself.

 

 

For souls, it is death to become water; for water, it is death to become earth; from earth, water comes to be; from water, soul.  (Herakleitos 36)

 

Angles of Repose is but one work in a large room-sized installation with the general title, The Look of Nowhere.  Johnson himself relates this installation to a poem of Wallace Stevens, “The Snowman,” the enigmatic final lines of which characterize “a mind of winter” in terms of “the listener” who

 

. . . nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

 

The look of nowhere is simultaneously what is there and what is not there, what nowhere looks like and nowhere’s look or act of beholding.  As in fragment 36 of the archaic Greek philosopher, Herakleitos, the macrocosmic cycles of the elements inextricably involve the microcosm of the soul, the presence of the object-world—“nothing that is not there”—is inseparable from the experience of the subject—“the nothing that is.” 

 

In another component piece of The Look of Nowhere, the spectator is confronted with a group of variously sized and shaped pieces of charcoal.  What is seen in each of the objects constituting Problems of Essence (2008) is clearly a piece of wood-become-charcoal, something both concretely present and evocative of an absent process.  The process of becoming-charcoal—Johnson produces his charcoal pieces in a high-temperature kiln, using traditional Japanese techniques—is made manifest in each object’s deep fissures and in the way surfaces of the object continue to flake away.  In detail, each object presents itself as a blackened canyon, while the group of objects takes on the appearance of a forest.  Nevertheless, canyons and forests, objects and processes, being(s) and becoming(s) are themselves “no-things” only describable in relation to a perceiving/thinking subject.  This subject itself (herself/himself) is, in turn, absent from the work and, thus, “no-thing.”  In this way, what is “essential” to Problems of Essence appears to be, precisely, “no-thing.”

 

Moreover, each object of Problems of Essence offers us a haunting vision of what remains in the wake of the human drive to grasp, to comprehend, to master the world.  These carbonized echoes of a once-green and vibrant forest call to mind the ways in which human subjectivity is always tragic, opening up the rich givenness of things but also immediately enclosing and diminishing this richness with the hidebound categories of a conceptual status quo.  One of Johnson’s touchstones is the work of W. G. Sebald, who insists in The Rings of Saturn that “our spread over the earth was fuelled . . . by incessantly burning whatever would burn.”  Each object here is the material residue of a quasi-alchemical process, of another kind of elemental cycle:  not so much a transmutation of the base into the sublime as a disquieting reversion of life towards materiality.

 

The most prominent component piece of The Look of Nowhere is Tables of Inadvertence (2008), a set of long tables covered with a dense assortment of objects:  branches, bits of wire, bones, a magnifying glass, small balls, antlers, dried blossoms, a pair of opera glasses, isolated feathers, carbonized objects (including books), mirrors, piles of black sand, etc.  A spectator who comes upon Tables at the beginning of her experience of Johnson’s work will find many of these objects reappearing elsewhere—as the charcoal reappears in Problems of Essence and the sand recurs in Angles of Repose.  Coming upon the piece after experiencing other works, a spectator may find Tables of Inadvertence something of an epitome of Johnson’s oeuvre, perhaps reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s miniaturized “retrospective,” Boite-en-valise (1941, etc.).  In either case, beyond the wonderful array of diverse objects, what is most striking about Tables is precisely its “inadvertence,” the indeterminacy with which it nevertheless seems so carefully arranged.  In its studied attention to “want of attention,” Johnson’s piece is simultaneously the result or product of careful planning and the trace or spectre of a process radically indeterminate in its methods.  Tables of Inadvertence effectively gives itself to the spectator’s sense of sight as a compelling “oversight,” as a moment of infinite—unbounded, indeterminate—generosity, as the glance that “no-where” might cast towards “no-thing.”    

 

 

The bow’s name is life; its work is death.  (Herakleitos 48)

 

If the pieces that constitute The Look of Nowhere explore the indeterminate borders and margins of the objective and the subjective, they also call upon the spectator to assume something like a spiritual discipline.  Such a discipline would respond to the danger that “a mind of winter” might simply erase the world and itself in a fit of nihilism.  For Johnson, the grounding moment of this resistance to nihilism is found in the iconic myth of the hunter, Actaeon.  Witness to the goddess Artemis’s naked bath, Actaeon is turned into a stag soon to be dismembered and eaten by his own hunting dogs.  Catching the reflection of his body in the very moment of its metamorphosis, he cries out:

 

“What has happened to me?”

 

No words came.  No sound came but a groan.

His only voice was a groan.

Human tears shone on his stag’s face

From the grief of a mind that was still human.

 

(Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid, 100)

 

It is this moment of anguished self-consciousness—self-consciousness conscious of its own erasure of world and self—that takes Johnson and his spectator beyond the calm rationality of winter’s mind.

 

Key to this spiritually resonant self-consciousness is the realization that any true self-consciousness is intertwined with another’s self-consciousness—as Actaeon’s moment of truth is eternally linked to Artemis and her response to his presence—so that elemental cycles must be enriched with the ghosts of mutual recognition.  Johnson takes this insight deeper than Hegel’s dialectic of master and slave, registering the ways in which the perceptual world itself takes on the contours of another’s look or regard.  In the split-screen video installation Ruminando (2007), the spectator participates in a leisurely stroll thought the labyrinth of the streets of Venice—buzzing with intense colors, shapes, and sounds—from the disorienting “non-perspective” of a horse.  The non-stereoscopic vision of a horse reflects its evolutionary history as prey, not as predator, so that the look of the other—the predator—is encoded in the very structure of the horse’s wide-angled survey of its surroundings.  Participating in something so simple and yet so difficult, the spectator begins to experience directly and with a liberating sense of beauty and joy the impossible parallax that Actaeon could only live in terror in the course of his grotesque death.  The work of art, then, opens up a path beyond the anguish of self-consciousness precisely by celebrating the shade of Actaeon.

 

This path beyond anguish is given shape in another component piece of The Look of Nowhere, Infinity Room 1 (2008).  In the seemingly endless reflections of this human-dimensioned installation—named for the plutonium pits that dotted Colorado’s Rocky Flats, pits so contaminated with alpha radiation that the equipment designed to monitor them simply failed, registering their radiation level as “infinite”—Johnson once again calls upon the spectator to respond to the nihilism of self-consciousness.  From dried mud and mirrors, he creates a virtual landscape as bleak as the deserts of the moon and yet as inviting as a mountain stream.  Immanuel Kant’s awe at “the starry sky above and the moral law within” is here transformed into an invitation to participate in the world, to share in a world that is what it is because of what humans have done but is also what it is despite the human presence.

 

If Infinity Room 1 celebrates the indeterminate play of the bleak and the inviting, its variation or companion piece—Open Range (2009)—more openly gives thanks for the overwhelming generosity of the world.  Here, the interplay of mirrored light and golden switchgrass simply welcomes the spectator into a world beyond the anguish of self-consciousness, a world where the shade of Actaeon might offer welcome shade, while his hounds rest, dreaming of tomorrow’s chase. 

 

 

                                                Jonathan Scott Lee

                                                September 2010

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Actaeon’s Tracks in the Infinity Room:  Scott Johnson’s Baroque Minimalism

 

  Witness to the goddess Artemis’s naked bath, Actaeon is turned into a stag soon to be dismembered and eaten by his own hunting dogs.  Catching the reflection of his just-transformed being, he cries:

 

“What has happened to me?”

No words came.  No sound came but a groan.

His only voice was a groan.

Human tears shone on his stag’s face

From the grief of a mind that was still human.

 

(Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid, 100)

 

It is this moment of anguished self-consciousness, self-consciousness conscious of an erasure of self, that Scott Johnson’s art simultaneously evokes and invokes.

 

Evokes:  Johnson’s series of pieces, jointly titled The Problem of Essence, offers us a haunting vision of what remains in the wake of our drive to grasp, to comprehend, to master the world.  These carbonized echoes of a once-green and vibrant forest call to mind the ways in which human vision is always tragic, opening up the rich givenness of things but also immediately enclosing and diminishing this richness with the hidebound categories of a conceptual status quo.  Each Problem of Essence is the material residue of a quasi-alchemical process:  not so much a transmutation of the base into the sublime as a disquieting reversion of life towards materiality.

 

Invokes:  In the seemingly endless reflections of The Infinity Room—named for the plutonium pits that dotted Rocky Flats and were so contaminated with alpha radiation that monitoring equipment simply failed—Scott Johnson calls us to respond to our erasure of the world with a kind of spiritual discipline.  From dried mud and mirrors, he creates a virtual landscape as bleak as the deserts of the moon and yet as inviting as a mountain stream.  Immanuel Kant’s awe at “the starry sky above and the moral law within” is here transformed into an invitation to participate in the world, to share in a world that is what it is because of what we have done but is also what it is without us.  The Infinity Room opens us up to the “no-where” of the soul’s dark night.

 

In this back-and-forth of evocation and invocation, there emerges an uncanny aesthetic of baroque minimalism.  This is strikingly evident in Johnson’s split-screen video installation Ruminando, where we participate in a stroll through the labyrinth of Venice—buzzing with color and shape and sound—from the disorienting “non-perspective” of a horse.  Participating in something so simple, we begin to experience directly and with a liberating sense of beauty and joy the impossible parallax that Actaeon could only live in terror in the course of his grotesque death.

 

 

                                                Jonathan Scott Lee

                                                May 2008

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Try teaching a friend origami over the telephone.
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