________________________ local dump
by Erik Hüsken
Ryan Johnson was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1978. His parents are originally from Minnesota but after his father finished grad school both his parents were teachers in Bolivia, Greece, and Pakistan before ending up in Indonesia. Johnson lived most of his childhood and adolescence in Jakarta (from 2nd grade through graduating high school). He received a BFA in 2000 from the Pratt Institute, NY and a MFA from Columbia University, NY in 2003. His first solo exhibtion took place in 2005 at LFL Gallery, Project Room, NY. So far about his vita, but were is Ryan heading...
Instead of using common sculptural materials like stone or wood, Johnson uses other materials e.g. plaster and casting tape wrapped around aluminum wire scaffolds to create his humourous surreal sculptures. Besides working as a sculptor he sometimes plays drums on his friend Zachary Cale’s recordings and designs a few record covers a year for Cale’s small DIY operation record label called All Hands Electric.
Ryan, what was it like growing up in Indonesia?
My parents were teachers at the Jakarta International School so most of our lives were centered around the school and its extended communities. In Jakarta I lived in a neighborhood with other teachers’ kids and after school we were a very active group: turning the local dump into a series of bike ramps, designing blowguns, hunting rats, drawing comics, building mini skateboards, homemade arcade games, making up languages, playing music, inventing sports. The only time we would spend back in Minnesota was during the summers. So I guess my upbringing was a combination of Southeast Asian and Midwestern, which kind of sounds like a horrible fusion cuisine idea.
How did growing up and living in such diverse environments influence you as an artist?
It’s difficult to say. Growing up in a country that is not your ‘home’ country inevitably shapes your perspective on the world. Not to get too philosophical, but I do think the experience of being an expatriate has parallels to being an artist in that you are perpetually navigating this contradiction of being both inside and outside of a culture, connected yet separate. For me, being a good artist also means being comfortable with paradox as it requires both supreme confidence as well as the ability to be your own harshest critic.
What was your first contact with art and does it still affect the work you create these days?
I actually have been thinking about this a lot lately as my affinities towards Indonesian and Oceanic art seem to get more pronounced with each body of work. In elementary school I remember studying Wayang Kulit, which are Javanese shadow puppets made from thin sheets of perforated buffalo skin and bamboo sticks. Because their function is simply to cast shadows, the figures are flattened and compressed into a very low relief. When seen on their own, not during a performance, these shadow puppets have a very peculiar presence as they seem to hover in limbo, between image and object. This slippery quality is something that I am always hoping for in my work. The figuration present in Wayang Kulit is also brilliantly sophisticated and something with which I feel a definite connection. The tension the puppets embody is reminiscent of ancient Egyptian statuary as they somehow are able to exhibit seemingly contradictory qualities simultaneously, appearing both rigid and fluid, crude and elegant.
On a more general level, I saw a lot of symbolic painted sculpture throughout the various islands and cultures in Indonesia which certainly had an impact on me. The combination of painting and sculpture has a fraught history in Western Art. I remember making a painted sculpture in art school in Brooklyn and getting grief from my professor because it defied the ‘truth to materials’ ethos of the New York School. Of course, this is certainly a question that you think about, but it has basically become a flatfooted issue, there to be punctured. For me, painting a three-dimensional object has the power to complicate and pervert form in compelling and unexpected ways.
Was there a certain experience/incident that initiated the wish to
become an artist?
There was no one experience really, as a kid I was always building things.
I would construct spaceships out of cardboard boxes and aluminum foil or fit every t-shirt I could find onto the backrest of a chair, that kind of thing. It wasn’t until high school, when I took a two-year studio art course with this terrifically intense teacher named Mr. Sadokierski, that I realized ‘artist’ was an actual
Why did you choose sculpture as your medium?
I primarily made paintings and drawings throughout art school and grad school, but it eventually became clear that sculpture was the best fit for my ideas. I was never comfortable with the concept of figure/ground in painting, I was always trying to eliminate the ‘ground.’ Sculpture has a very direct relationship with the body as it occupies the same space we do. I remember walking around Michelangelo’s ‘captive’ sculptures in Florence and suddenly feeling aware of my lower back, and then standing up straight when confronted by David. I think the potential for physical mirroring and empathy in sculpture is very significant for me.
Is your process intuitive or do you work with a decided plan?
My process is as intuitive as I can make it. I tend to draw and sketch out a lot of ideas and put them up on my studio wall. I find that this is very helpful in sorting out which ideas continue to attract my attention.
How often do you abandon a piece because it did not work out the way you wanted it to?
I would say about 5 times a year. But it is not because they didn’t work out the way I wanted as that would mean I knew what I wanted beforehand. I find the best works do something unexpected, so that is what I am always hoping for.
It is impossible for me to finish a work that I lose interest in, so like most artists I have a whole graveyard of abandoned work.
‘Watchman’ and his companions seem like a comment/critique of surveillance tactics. Please give us a closer explanation.
That show was done in 2008 and came out of a pervading sense of helplessness that I remember feeling at the time. I’ve always loved how when somebody breaks their arm or leg, friends and family will write and draw on their cast to lift their spirits. It seems like the root of this impulse is a kind of magical thinking, that somehow scrawling on the cast will speed the injured persons recovery. It is such a small gesture but a very human one. A lot of things factored in to what that show ended up becoming, not the least of which was the fact that America was five years into the Iraq War with no end in sight. For me the pieces in the ‘Watchman’ show touched on issues of surveillance, but had more to do with.
What do you think of Joseph Beuys and his concept of the “social sculpture”?
I am assuming you are asking this because of ‘Watchman.’ In that show I invited visitors to write and draw on large totemic sculptures that I made by attaching markers to them. The sculptures were considered finished only after the show closed and I cut the markers off. That show is most likely the farthest I will ever go in terms of a show being so explicitly time-based and interactive. That is where I am too much of an object-based artist to consider Beuys as one. I appreciate Beuys and the idea of “social sculpture,” but I don’t feel like he is somebody who I look to, maybe because it is too epic and utopian-seeming for me to wrap my head around.
What are you working on right now?
I am in the middle of making new sculptures for a show I am doing this October at the Suzanne Geiss Company here in New York.
Can you reveal a little bit more about your upcoming show?
All I can say for sure is that there will be a sculpture of a couple on a speeding, out-of-control bicycle. Beyond that I can’t really say because I haven’t made the whole show yet. I am a big believer of what Keats called ‘negative capability’ (The concept of Negative Capability is the ability to contemplate the world without the desire to try and reconcile contradictory aspects or fit it into closed and rational systems. <A/N>)’, or the ability to be comfortable with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” When preparing for a show I definitely subscribe to this concept.
I can never even start a piece if I know how it is going to end up. Things need to mutate and transform, I feel like I need to surprise myself first if there is any hope of my art being able to communicate with anyone else.