Heather L. Johnson, familiar to Omnibus readers from Travis Eby’s review of her exhibition Air and Blood, finds inspiration in the complex infrastructure systems of cities and their impact on the physical space and experience of urban environments. Referencing both anatomy and machine, Johnson uses delicate embroidery and graphite drawing to consider movement, identity, activity and space. Enjoy our conversation with Johnson below. Click on any of the images or the hyperlinked titles below to view a slideshow of her work. To inquire about availability, contact Christina Ray, and stay tuned for an exhibition of her new work this fall.
Urban Omnibus: Your work investigates ideas of movement, memory, identity and distance. Your recent exhibition, “Air and Blood,” explored the relationship between transportation systems and anatomical processes. Can you tell us about the choice to focus specifically on urban, public transit systems and the movement of people and objects through urban environments?
Heather L. Johnson: For several years, highways provided a reference point through which I’ve explored the ideas you mentioned. Highways relate to cities with respect to how they move people within, in/out of, and between them. My primary frame of reference was, until recently, taken from the experience of being inside a car, inspired by the cinematic viewpoint of moving quickly between places while the world rushes past outside the windscreen. Before moving to the New York City area, I lived on the west coast and in Texas, where, to a great extent, big highways determine how people experience their own cities and towns.
Now that I live and work in and near New York City, my work has shifted to reflect a tighter sense of scale, with references to constrained, more intimate spaces. I’ve come to think of city streets (as well as tunnels, subway systems, and even high-rise building elevators and hallways) as acting a bit like electrical circuitry in the way they channel the human activity that forms the “life blood” of a large, complex city. This idea, along with a recently-discovered love I’ve found for motorcycles, has led me to draw connections between the internal workings of cities and engines, with their ever-circulating fluids and continuously moving parts. There’s something about the physicality of being squeezed that now pops up in my work, of being one person among millions who are all acting independently but simultaneously within a relatively small geographical space.
UO: What about embroidery as a medium did you find to be particularly appropriate for communicating ideas about urban circulatory systems?
HLJ: Once a pattern is laid out, the act of embroidering embodies a repetitive movement of the hand and arm, one that is meditative, fluid and continuous, not unlike the perpetual movement of life within a dense city, on a metaphorical level. The embroideries I make are meant, from a distance, to read very much like the original engineering drawings they are based on. On closer inspection, they reveal more information: that they are hand-stitched, that there is text or other layers of imagery, such as the blue and red arrows in the “Air and Blood” embroideries. I strive to set up a kind of tension between the process of making these and the subject matter, which leads to a rather open-ended viewing experience. I want people to be free to bring their own ideas and memories into looking at my work, so that each person’s experience with it is personal.
UO: Your work varies from diagrammatic to map-based to pictorial, and your titles might be active (Expel, Choke, Squeeze), literal (Billboard, Grease, Observations), metaphorical (Artificial Lung, Artificial Heart) or place-based (the latitude/longitude series). What do you hope to convey with the choices made in each case, and how do you think that the message is affected by the combination of the two elements (method and title)?
HLJ: Arrggh!! Titles are often the hardest choice for me in the entire process of making the work. For the most part, I select them very intuitively, and on a case-by-case basis. I often use them as a way to unify series or groupings of pieces, to clarify how certain pieces relate to one another (such as in the series you mentioned in the question, wherein geographical coordinates are used to identify locations of drawings based on Google Earth screen snapshots – the coordinates signify specificity without the loaded baggage that can come with a place name). In other cases, I’ll use a title to help ground the work in a context that may not be obvious within the piece itself, or to add one additional layer of meaning – another angle through which to view the piece (as with “Artificial Heart”, “Artificial Lung”, etc).
The more literal titles I generally use when the subject of the piece itself is somewhat active and self-explanatory. “Billboard,” for instance, has all the information the viewer needs in the image itself…the “Billboard” title reference only points to the main element that activates the piece (in this case a billboard looming over the NJ Turnpike with a message that reads, “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.”).
Heather Johnson grew up moving from place to place, a process punctuated by dramatic cultural transitions: Hawaii to suburban Chicago; Brazil to a small town in Utah; Utah to London, England, and so on. This experience informs her current work as an artist, though which she investigates ideas of movement, memory, identity and distance. Johnson holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, and has completed residencies at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte, NC, and at Winthrop University in South Carolina. Her work has been exhibited throughout the U.S., in Europe and Japan, at White Columns (New York City), Austin Museum of Art (Austin, TX), Gallery 16 (San Francisco), Room Space (Gentilly, France), Sonoma Museum of Visual Art (Sonoma, CA), and many other venues. She has curated several exhibitions, including Cracks in the Pavement: Gifts in the Urban Landscape, involving artists from around the world, and most recently, The Pickup, a project of site-specific works created in collaboration with artist/curator Eleanor Eichenbaum Eubanks for Conflux 2008 in New York City. She currently lives in Weehawken, NJ.
All images courtesy of Christina Ray.