Double Your Displeasure
Double Trouble at the Yale Art Center
By Steven Robert Allen
Throughout most of the history of Western art, it's generally been assumed that good art cannot and should not be grotesque. In the last century or so, however, that guiding principle has largely been thrown out the window. These days, the most interesting contemporary art often contains at least some element of aesthetic deformity. A couple years ago SITE Santa Fe even hosted a biennial called Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque specifically to celebrate art that is fantastically incongruous, even ugly.
Local artist J.L. Johnson's “twin series,” currently on display at the Yale Art Center, swims almost entirely in a festering pond of the grotesque. Her immaculately composed charcoal characters, embedded in bright monochrome fields, are comic book freaks from the darker side of our imaginations. These are the monsters hiding under our beds or in our closets, or swimming up through the plumbing when we're home alone sitting on our toilets in the wee hours after midnight.
Several of Johnson's freaks sport menstruating vaginas. Others have wild, lashing tongues, exposed squirting nipples, ghoulish, broken-toothed grins and druggy, dilated pupils. Many of these creatures are insectoid. Many also have bandaged or stitched wounds. One of them wears an earring made from a tiny dead fish.
This sounds a lot more disgusting than it actually is. Johnson's weirdos are certainly monstrous, but she's instilled a great deal of humor into these pieces. They have a light, circus-like quality. They're freakish, yes, but in a fun, horror house sense. You would pay two bits to enter this tent, even knowing that you'll have nightmares about the experience for weeks to come.
Johnson tells me she's always been interested in people's ideas of beauty and acceptance. The first book report she did was on the Elephant Man. For her twins project, she researched images on birth defects and deformities and then began looking into the frightening biological effects of depleted uranium.
She pondered how a single person could have three or four arms, or how two people could be physiologically conjoined.
Johnson says this work is also a reflection of her feelings about being a dissenter in George W. Bush's America. In most of these pieces, you'll notice, one twin is dominant over the other. Much like modern-day liberals, the weaker twin is almost impotent, powerless to influence a situation gone badly awry.
These themes and thoughts led directly to the series. Johnson starts the pieces by closing her eyes and drawing a big squiggle on paper. (Something her mom did with her at the doctor's office to kill time during Johnson's sickly childhood.) She works these into her odd little mutants, filling in the remaining space with layers and layers of nontoxic toy paint. It's a very time-intensive process: The quickest piece took her a whopping 182 hours to complete.
The work hangs around the entire perimeter of the Yale Art Center, crammed very close together, like frames in a comic book, creating a surreal effect that's something like scanning a nonlinear narrative that loops back on itself. It's a weird story, with weirder characters, but it has its own coherence and inner logic. Just don't visit the show after dark.
Double Trouble , an exhibit featuring work by J.L. Johnson, runs through Nov. 4 at the Yale Art Center (1001 Yale SE, Suite K). A closing reception will be held on Friday, Nov. 3, from 6 to 9 p.m. 242-1669.
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