November 11â€“December 12 . 2010
Heather L. Johnson
Heather L. Johnson
This land may be profitable to all those that venture it. —Henry Hudson By drawing a diagram, a ground plan of a house, a street plan to the location of a site, or a topographic map, one draws a “logical two dimensional picture.” A “logical picture” differs from a natural or realistic picture in that it rarely looks like the thing it stands for. It is a two dimensional analogy or metaphor - A is Z. —Robert Smithson
In 1968, Robert Smithson intervened into the landscape of Snake Hill (also known as Laurel Hill), New Jersey, by introducing six of his “mirror displacements” among the rocky slopes. In describing his idea behind works that were not exact images of places, he discusses the idea of a logical picture. For Smithson, a logical picture differs from a natural or realistic picture because, by its nature, it is not an exact image of a place. Instead, it stands as a visual metaphor. With her maps that conjoin memory and historic fact, Heather L. Johnson invites us to explore a place that exists today through the varied and complex layers of its past. Among the names seen in these works is “Hudson.” Named after the famed seventeenth century explorer, Hudson County boasts a rich history that has played out along New York Harbor. Between 1855 and 1962, a variety of institutions were built by Hudson County, scattered about the rocky volcanic promontory that rises up from the Meadowlands swamps once known as Snake Hill. These included a penitentiary, a resident home for the poor, three separate churches, a large complex that served as an asylum for the insane, and various isolation hospitals, including for tuberculosis and smallpox. A brief search on the history of Snake Hill turns up numerous stories of shootings, escapes from the penitentiary, misuse of public funds, and political corruption. As the industry of New Jersey quickly took over increasing amounts of land, residents also moved until, by the mid-twentieth century, Snake Hill was nearly abandoned. Despite efforts dating back to the 1890s to preserve the hill and the surrounding Meadowlands, much of it was removed in the 1960s, ostensibly to make room for development of the Meadowlands. This development never materialized, leaving the rocky hill to exist at a fraction of its original size. This colorful past is woven throughout Johnson’s works. The artist’s imagery describes the impact of economic and political actions that, in turn, mark social realities. Through her topographical and historic studies, the artist charts land masses and water, death and construction, and human interventions into the landscape. The inscriptions seen in the work equally mark use and disuse, new landmarks etched over those that have been long
forgotten and the intimate relationship between space, humanity, and institutions. Among the bisecting lines of elevated highways, train tracks, creeks, and county lines are stories of human fragility. Spaces that are marked “Cemetery,” “Asylum for the Insane,” and “Almshouse,” are accompanied by headlines announcing illness and death: “31st Typhoid Case at Mental Hospital,” or “Patient (Dominick Lodico) Dies,” “Man Succumbs Under Shower at Mental Diseases Hospital.” This poetic way of recalling a checkered past is reminiscent of nineteenth century Romanticism, simultaneously dramatic and understated. With these phrases, the artist recalls voices now silent, like the thousands of dead buried at a corner of Snake Hill, former residents of the asylum, hospitals, and the penitentiary.
The passage of time and the transition of the land from use to disuse are marked by equally poetic and melancholy phrases like “empty, brand new swing sets.” This layered composition, in which texts and lines are marked with both dark and light thread, underscore the symbolic nature of her “logical picture” and its function as a document, a historical portrait, an emotional journey. The act of creating these histories through the delicate movement of thread into and across linen underscores her deep intellectual and emotional connection to the New Jersey landscape. Having lived in the state for four years, the artist has taken on the task of exploring the deeper stories of this paradoxical landscape that is often disparaged by New Yorkers. Each stitch preserves multiple layers of narrative form and thorough research. For Johnson, the act of embroidery represents the comfortable contradiction of a process that is both obsessive and therapeutic, remarkably like the incongruity of the landscapes represented here.
Hotel Room, 2010, watercolor on paper, 3.5 x 4”
The aesthetic curves of the Hackensack River are bisected here by human expansion into the landscape. The steady lines of the Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad, the twisting curves of the New Jersey Turnpike, and the subdivisions of parcels of land are all marked as linear indicators of the co-existence of past and present at the site. These embroideries are based on a series of property atlases dating from the 1880s to the 1950s. Embroidered texts mark the names of landowners and landmarks as well as Johnson’s own observations during her numerous visits, such as “empty box of Trojans” or “dull roar of semi trucks.” The swampy marshlands that surround Snake Hill (and contributed to the large number of black snakes that once occupied the area) are present, marked by embroidered little tufts of leaves, another poetic element that also refers to the iconography of maps and legends.
When searching Google for various terms related to the themes of the exhibition, including “Secaucus, New Jersey,” “Snake Hill, New Jersey,” and others, Johnson came across many thumbnail images, which she has turned into individual watercolor paintings that mark a rhythm throughout the exhibition. The iconic and somewhat banal pictures of hotel rooms, semi trucks, the New Jersey Turnpike, assorted factories, and the like, are symbolic of the hunt for meaning and the difficulties encountered in this kind of search. Though on the surface, a characterless photograph of a hotel room or truck would appear to have little relation to the denotation of “Snake Hill,” it is deeply tied to the history of the human presence in the region and its indelible mark on the landscape. Like the layers of history and humanity illustrated in Heather Johnson’s embroideries, these watercolors also function to tell stories, real and invented, partial and epic, characterized by time and place. Rocío Aranda-Alvarado Associate Curator, El Museo del Barrio New York
Computers, 2010, watercolor on paper, 3.25 x 3.75”
Blacklisted, 2010, thread on linen, 11 x 10â€?
Graffiti, 2010, thread on linen, 11 x 10â€?
Terra Incognita, 2010, thread on linen, 19 x 32â€?
S, 2010, thread on linen, 11 x 10â€?
Flowers, 2010, thread on linen, 19.5 x 15.5â€?
No. 31, 2010, thread on linen, 11 x 10â€?
Wall, 2010, watercolor on paper, 3 x 3.5â€? Photo Not Available, 2010, watercolor on paper, 3.5 x 4.25â€?
Subdivisions, 2010, thread on linen, 11 x 10â€?
About Heather L. Johnson Heather Johnson grew up moving from place to place, a process punctuated by dramatic cul-tural transitions: Hawaii to sub-urban 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 Fran-cisco, 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. CHRISTINA RAY is an innovative gallery and creative catalyst in New York whose mission, grounded by the concept of psychogeography, is to discover and present the most important contemporary artwork exploring the relationship between people and places. ¹ Robert Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites,” from Unpublished Writings in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, edited by Jack Flam, published University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2nd Edition 1996.
Truck No. 1, 2010, watercolor on paper, 4.5 x 5” Cover: 207 acres, 2010, thread on linen, 11 x 10”
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CHRISTINA RAY is pleased to present Erasure, an exhibition of new work by Heather L. Johnson. In an installation of embroideries, watercolor...