Author: Alizey Khan
Steve Johnson: From The Ground Up is a (currently open!) mixed media drawing exhibition which opened on Saturday, August 27th at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, SC. I attended the gallery walkthrough and opening lecture with artist Steve Johnson to better understand his artistic process and technique. The exhibition includes mainly mixed media pieces featuring rats and birds created with layers of graphite and watercolour paint washes on wood veneer, cut and pasted onto birch plywood. The exhibition also features Johnson’s site-specific installations of veneers pasted directly to the wall of the Halsey, and some lithographs.
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Steve Johnson’s artist statement gives his artistic objectives as “bridg[ing] conflicting views by revealing shared concerns and common ground” and “navigat[ing] the gray areas and middle grounds inhabited by animals with competing interests” using a cast of lovably rendered rats, chickadees and hummingbirds to depict “the basic desire to find and maintain security, whether in a home, job, or relationship, in a forever shifting landscape.” At the opening lecture, Johnson explained his seeming fixation on these specific animals as one of personal convenience; as an avid gardener, he was able to observe the chickadees and hummingbirds frequently flying around his flowers, and he was also plagued by rats in his crops, which he would then capture and study.
His explanations gave the work a completely different meaning to me, as some of the pieces such as “Rape of the Chickadee” (featuring a chickadee being assaulted from behind by a rat) seemed overly violent and offbeat before the lecture; Johnson explained that he used the animals as metaphors for society and other creatures in his personal life. For example, the rat submissively lying on his back beside a group of chickadees with his legs splayed out in “Chickadees with Rat” was inspired by the behavior and favorite pose of Johnson’s dog. Johnson was also inspired by humanity’s unique desire to be bigger than themselves by achieving the impossible, as metaphorically depicted through the rat with wings attached to its back in “Flying Rat.”
With Johnson’s context, the more violent pieces such as “Rape of the Chickadee” and “Drawn and Quartered” (featuring chickadees pulling a rat apart) take on a more symbolic role to depict society’s struggle to maintain a hierarchal balance. “Drawn and Quartered” was exhibited in both a smaller scale and a large site-specific installation of it alongside; I felt the larger piece did not work as well, as the scale made the grain of the wood work against the piece rather than with it as it had in the smaller version. Here, the grain of the wood circled around to make a perfect “cloud” and “puddle” at the top and bottom, which were stained with sepia toned watercolors to enhance the effect— framing the rest of the piece, creating a believable ground for the subject and creating the effect of three dimensional space through the lines of the wood grain.
The largest and most fantastical piece, “Hummingbird and Flowers,” seems a little disjointed from the cohesive theme of the rest of the exhibition, but it is also the most exquisite piece; based on a dream Steve Johnson had of a drawing he did, the work features a hummingbird flying into a landscape dominated by a single, undulating mass of screaming bodies, for which Johnson used pictures of basketball players mid-game as a reference. I really liked the information about the reference he used, as I did not recognize it before I heard it, but on a second viewing I could clearly imagine the contorted, open-mouthed faces as being those of known basketball players.
I enjoyed the aesthetics of this exhibition, with its tight, cohesive subject matter and light, natural palette; I really liked how adept Johnson was at finding the perfect piece of wood for his scenes and combining a cool palette on the animals with the warmth of the wood with its exposed grain in both the exposed and stained areas. I appreciated the meaning inherent in his work much more after the lecture, which I am glad to have attended as it cleared up many questions I had regarding his technique; the animals seemed to have been on raised areas of the wood, which I had thought he would sand down or carve. Instead, he had drawn the rats and birds on thin paper-like wood veneer, which he then cut out with a saw and pasted onto the perfect birch panel for the piece. I thought he gave an excellent, informative, amusing lecture (unsurprising, as he well-known as an excellent Drawing professor at the College of Charleston) and I emerged from the experienced artistically and intellectually enriched.