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Johnson, Helen - 2015.63

Helen Johnson

Not saying what should go in its place, but saying, not this 2015
synthetic polymer paint, pumice and jojoba wax microbeads on canvas
86 x 61 cm
Purchased from Sutton Gallery, 2015

Born in Melbourne in 1979, Helen Johnson felt compelled to make art from a young age, attracted to its ‘unquantifiable and challenging’ possibilities.[1] She went on to complete a Bachelor of Fine Art (Hons) at RMIT University in 2002 and a PhD in Fine Art at Monash University in 2014 while exhibiting regularly in Australia and abroad. Since 2004, she has undertaken several prestigious studio residencies, at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne (2004), Artspace, Sydney (2011) and in Germany, Norway and London. More recently, she has extended her interests into writing and curating.

Johnson is perhaps best known for her large-scale, semi-narrative paintings, which explore a range of political and cultural histories and issues. Her diverse oeuvre switches between structured representational imagery and more intuitively conceived abstractions. At the heart of her practice lies a continual questioning of the perceived limitations of painting and an attendant desire to expand its potential, both conceptually and technically. For her, painting is a vital communication tool that offers a reflective aesthetic experience, which in turn creates a space for us to exercise our critical faculties. She comments that each work is like an individual person, dictating its own logic as the ‘materials and the processes of translation from mind to hand have their say in what comes out’.[2]

This observation is apposite to Not saying what should go in its place, but saying, not this, an expressive orchestration of abstract forms, muted colours and variegated surface effects, which Johnson said had many iterations before taking its final form.[3] The painting belongs to a body of work titled Café Fatigue, suggesting both a sardonic critique of Melbourne’s obsession with café culture and a typically self-reflexive comment on Johnson’s own reluctant complicity in social ritual. In the artist’s text that accompanied the exhibition she included a tongue-in-cheek description of an ‘ultimate’ café breakfast she had consumed, comprising a ‘free range egg rolled omelette, small grilled salmon fillet, potato salad, seasonal green vegetables with sesame oil, natto, nori, umeboshi, brown rice, pickles and miso soup’.[4] With this à la mode collation in mind, the organic shapes in the foreground of the picture take on the semblance of a still life on a table. This idea gains currency in the light of her remark that paintings ‘become abstracted from their sources over murky jars of water, as sitters become abstracted from their thoughts over coffee’.[5]

The ambivalence implicit in the work’s title has its visual corollary in the shifts in style and technique that register across its surface. With its complex interplay of fractured lines, intersecting planes and collage elements, the painting appears predominantly to reference cubism – with a twist. Johnson often playfully engages with the art-historical canon and here she both nods to and updates the tradition of the cubist café still life. Her inventive revisionism witnesses the application of suitably ‘grimy’ materials as diverse as pumice, moulding paste, marble dust and jojoba wax microbeads – along with gestural brushstrokes – to create a textural wonderland. The microbeads, a non-toxic version of the notorious environmental contaminant, are manufactured in perfect spheres and they appealed to Johnson as an unconventional and loaded medium. They subtly bring the work into the realm of twenty-first-century politics, just as Picasso’s use of newspaper in his landmark Still Life with Chair Caning 1912 referenced the unsettled political climate in Europe at the time. Yet Johnson’s review of the past remains elusive and open-ended. Not saying what should go in its place, but saying, not this provides fertile ground for both contemplation and lively debate, while offering a rich visual metaphor for the cumulative layers of human experience.

Kendrah Morgan is Senior Curator, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.


[1] Helen Johnson, email to the author, 15 November 2016.

[2] ibid., and Helen Johnson, artist’s statement, Café Fatigue, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, 2015.

[3] Helen Johnson, telephone conversation with the author, 15 November 2016.

[4] Johnson, artist’s statement, op. cit.

[5] ibid.