Wonderlust / Interview with Sarah Anne Johnson

Interview with Sarah Anne Johnson (S.J.) by Leanne Simaan (L.S.)

Wonderlust
March 1 – March 29, 2014  
Stephen Bulger Gallery

Sarah Anne Johnson, Golden Boy, 2013, Unique chromogenic image with gold leaf, 9.5 x 14 inch. © Sarah Anne Johnson / Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

L.S.: What inspired you to depart from previous subject matter, such as ecological conflict in Arctic Wonderland, or family history in House on Fire, and venture into the realm of sexually explicit subject matter?

S.J.: When I have expressed all I know on a certain topic, I need a break from it. Otherwise I will keep repeating the same ideas. Then I can come back to it later when I am inspired again. Most of the topic’s I have covered over the years I will probably return too.

The idea to do this work came to me slowly. I’d been thinking about how important it is for artists to take risks in their work. I’d also been reading up on issues of intimacy for my own personal interests and whenever I read, I end up with pictures floating around in my head and I began to wonder what they would like if I made them. I wasn’t going to follow through with it, because it seemed like a crazy idea to make work that was pretty much the opposite of the last body of  work I created (about the Arctic). Once I started imagining what the pictures would look like, I had to follow through, also, sex and intimacy is the perfect topic to explore my photographic interests which is all about showing what something looks like and what it feels like.

L.S.: How did you come to the decision to exhibit your work at the Stephen Bulger Gallery? How did you and Stephen Bulger connect?

S.J.: About 10 years ago I wanted to meet Stephen, because I liked his gallery, and I heard he was a good person to work with. Meeka Walsh from Border Crossing Magazine introduced us and put in a good word for me. We had a meeting to look at my work and he offered to represent me in Toronto. The exhibit I have up right now is my fifth show with him.

Sarah Anne Johnson, Burnt, 2013, Unique burnt chromogenic print, 28 x 42 inch. © Sarah Anne Johnson / Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

L.S.: The sexual acts and moments of passion, emotional and physical closeness that are captured offer a voyeuristic look into the private relationships of couples. I overheard some of the gallery guests discussing the controversy of the work, that it transgresses the boundaries between private and public realms. Do you consider these scenes as private and intimate, or have those boundaries been transgressed the moment you, as the voyeur, photographed them?

S.J.: They were very private moments, even with me in the room. And now, even though those images are hanging on a gallery wall and made public, they still keep a sense of that intimacy in part because of how I took the pictures, (the soft quality of light, the modest framing, etc.), and also because of the painting, drawing and collaging I added to the print.  

Sarah Anne Johnson, Monster, 2013, Unique chromogenic image with oil paint and gold leaf , 20 x 30 inch. © Sarah Anne Johnson / Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

L.S.: How was your experience creating this body of work? Did you feel uncomfortable or increasingly reserved as you documented the couples engaged in sexual acts?

S.J.: I am still very nervous at the beginning of every shoot, but it has gotten easier the more I do it. I understand what I want from the project now more than I did in the beginning and also I’ve figured out ways of helping the models and myself to feel more comfortable. This was an incredible experience for me. Everyone is so different, but also the same all at once. 

Sarah Anne Johnson, Happy Face, 2013, Chromogenic Print, 6.5 x 10 inch. © Sarah Anne Johnson / Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

L.S.: You alter, and enhance, the images by burning and scratching the surface, and applying glitter as well as gold foil. While the images may be interpreted as humorous, dream-like, or fantastical, were the manipulations/additions made to each photograph shaped by your experience witnessing your models? If so, do you consider these transformations to have created a more honest image? For instance, the deep scratches radiating around the couple in Scratches echoes the fresh scars on the man’s back and highlight the correlation between pain and pleasure during sex. On the other hand, Golden Boy pictures a woman lovingly gazing at her partner, who she idolizes. While Clowning features a couple that is being playful while they make love.

S.J.: My interest in photography is to show not just what something looks like but what it feels like as well. To do that I need to alter the photograph, adding in the sensations and emotions that lay just underneath the surface. Each photograph was a puzzle that had to be figured out on its own terms every time, so many considerations to deal with. I had to juggle my interests and intent with the form and feeling of the image.  sometimes I would have a photo up on the wall for a year before I could figure out what to  paint on it. So, yes, it is perhaps a more ‘honest’ image, but honest from my perspective.

Sarah Anne Johnson, Scratches, 2013, Unique incised chromogenic print20 x 30 inch. © Sarah Anne Johnson / Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

L.S.: Your work doesn’t focus on any one issue, topic, or theory; however, a consistent theme is adventure, and exploration, which leads me to ask, what are you currently working on? What should we expect in the future?

S.J.: Don’t expect anything. Not even that I will change it up every time, because I might decide at some point that I want to stick with a certain subject for a while. That being said, I have started some new work on a different topic but I am still painting on prints.

Sarah Anne Johnson, Splatter Paint, 2013, Unique chromogenic print with oil paint flush, 2013 , 60 x 84 inch. © Sarah Anne Johnson / Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

*Exhibition dates: March 1 – March 29, 2014 , Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen Street West, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sat 11 – 6 p.m.

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