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May 10–June 03 . 2012

Heather L. Johnson

suck squeeze bang blow


Heather L. Johnson

suck squeeze bang blow Revolve Relate Return Repeat An elegant symmetry underlies Heather L. Johnson’s newest body of work. In the pieces of thread and linen showcased in suck squeeze bang blow, a pattern gradually emerges, one in which content and process are perfectly synchronized. The technique is one Johnson has used to extraordinary effect in the past: embroidery. What is different, to a degree, is the subject matter: mechanical part-objects such as pistons, clutches, and ignitions, all of them from early- to mid-twentieth-century combustion engines. Johnson culls these items from illustrations. Most derive from repair manuals, but in one case, she utilizes a publication geared primarily to enthusiasts, The Book of the Motorcar (1913). Because of their age, these images are tinged with nostalgia. Johnson, however, appreciates them more for the contradictions they embody: although destined for mechanical apparatuses, these part-objects and the machines they power are nonetheless created by hand, a property underscored in the diagrams, which tend to depict the items in question piecemeal. Precisely because they have been disassembled, they imply reconstruction by the reader, as seen in Big Bang, a wall-sized collage whose constituent elements represent a single-cylinder, two-stroke motorcycle engine. Johnson frames these new works in terms of reciprocity, on the one hand, and revolution, on the other. By ‘reciprocity’ the artist means something akin to relationality: in an engine (as in a body and a city), the activity of one part informs and enables the behavior of every other part, creating an ecosystem of sorts. It is tempting to read such an insight metaphorically, even philosophically: as authors such as Judith Butler have argued, subjectivity is a function of one’s interactions with other human beings: these interactions don’t just influence who we are; they constitute the self as a self. With regard to ‘revolution,’ Johnson means motion, not uprising or revolt, and motion is certainly implied in the embroideries seen here, which depict objects designed to move and, by extension, to move other things. This is motion as propulsion: linear, teleological. What Johnson has in mind, though, is something slightly different. For her, motion embodies a coming back, a starting over—literally a revolution. Similarly, a large number of the machine parts she represents are circular in shape; their movements, as a result, are cyclical, as in Revolution, which includes an image of a rotary airplane engine prototype called the Funck III. These machine parts turn and in so doing return to their original positions over and over again. In framing motion as cyclical, Johnson harkens back to the original meaning of ‘revolution’: before it was associated with rebellion, the term was used to describe the passage of celestial bodies: its connotations were astronomical, not political, in other words. Appropriately, Johnson superimposes images of the heavens—along with maps, letters, and landscapes—from John Blaeu’s 1665 atlas, Atlas Maior, over many of her


mechanical part-objects. Celestial charts indicating the paths of rotating planets bisect the motifs in Revolution; Contact (which depicts a contact breaker assembly from the ignition system of a late 1960s/early 1970s single-cylinder, BSA motorcycle); and Clutch (which is based on the eponymous element from a Triumph dirt-bike), while an aerial view of the Inn River, a tributary of the Danube, winds its way through the four identical objects in Stroke (which illustrate the successive stages of action in a four-cylinder engine). Revolution implies repetition, of course, and repetition is operative in Johnson’s process on many levels. The act of embroidering a piece of fabric is itself highly repetitive. Beyond this, Johnson’s very imagery is engaged with the concept and practice of repetition. As I mentioned earlier, the artist reiterates images from both repair manuals and atlases. Instead of working from the actual books, however, she relies on either photocopies or facsimiles. Her source images are actually copies of copies, in other words. In Johnson’s case, reiteration involves replication as well as deviation. For the most part, the artist translates her source images faithfully, going so far as to record both their content and their character. The single-line hatch marks represent positive space, for instance, while the double-cross hatch marks stand for negative space. The extraneous bits of thread and strategically placed voids, on the other hand, are intended to capture the degraded quality of the photocopies. (Paradoxically, Johnson adds details in order to suggest the loss of detail that excessive duplication entails.) The artist is not always true to the diagrams that inspire her embroideries, however: often she will delete an element from the items she depicts in order to reduce visual clutter or produce compositional balance. Johnson makes other changes as well, changes with thematic repercussions. The process of translating source images into embroideries involves multiple acts decontextualization, cropping, and fragmentation, resulting in part-objects with a decidedly anthropomorphic cast, not unlike those found in Francis Picabia’s drawings and paintings from the 1910s. Take Spin, for example. Here Johnson depicts the consecutive stages of action in a Wankel Bolt 53, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 4 x 4”


engine. Removed from their original frames of reference, however, the objects’ meaning multiplies: mechanical, celestial, and physiological systems are all evoked in these elusive works. In addition to formal strategies, Johnson also uses material—red and blue thread—to compare the behaviors of machines and bodies, specifically hearts, which oxygenate blood and then pump it back into the body in much the same way an engine combusts the energy that powers a motorcycle. In Johnson’s hands, therefore, machines are not only analogous to the human; they are embodied protagonists as well. Besides anthropomorphizing the items she depicts, Johnson also invests them with libidinal energy. The artist sets the stage with a series of suggestive titles, but she lets the viewer’s imagination do most of the work, creating chains of association that lead us from mechanical part-object to erotic part-object. The concentric circles in Spin evoke breasts as much as they do eyes, for instance, and insofar as they suggest rotation, they also hearken back to Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs from 1935. Printed with spiral patterns and mounted on phonographic turntables, these cardboard discs seemed to pulse and throb, alternately thrusting forwards and receding backwards. The feminine part-objects in Spin are joined by their masculine counterparts in Stroke, whose four elements call to mind a small army of semi-erect penises. (In their verticality and multiplicity they also resemble the mechanomorphic bachelors in Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915-23).) For all of these reasons, the engines found in Johnson’s embroideries are simultaneously carnal and incarnated, lending each a distinctly erotic charge. This charge is erotic, moreover, precisely because the engines are mechanical, not despite of it. In the imaginative universe sketched by the artist—a universe informed by a kind of organicist understanding of technology—the body and the machine are correlates, not antagonists, and they are linked by points of metaphorical as well as systemic and morphological continuity. Kelly Baum Haskell Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Princeton University Art Museum Bolt 52, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 3 x 5”


Spin, 6 of 13, 2012, thread on linen, 5 x 5� each


Revolution, 2011, thread on linen, 12.5 x 9�


Contact, 2012, thread on linen, 10 x 10�


Clutch, 2012, thread on linen, 15 x 25�


Primary Case 9/Gasket 10, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 12.5 x 10�


Kickstart Lever 89, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 9 x 7�


clockwise from top left: Pinion 58 (2), 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 3 x 3” Washer 72, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 4 x 3” Kickstart Lever Grip 55, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 5 x 4.5” Pinion 58, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 7 x 6”


About Heather L. Johnson Heather L. Johnson (b. 1969, Wahiawa, HI) 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 shown throughout the U.S. and Europe at many venues, such as White Columns (New York City), Austin Museum of Art (Austin, TX), Gallery 16 (San Francisco), Jersey City Museum (Jersey City, NJ) and Projective City (Paris). She has curated several exhibitions, including Cracks in the Pavement: Gifts in the Urban Landscape, involving artists from around the world, and 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. KESTING / RAY is an innovative gallery and creative catalyst in New York. Our mission is to discover and advance the most important contemporary artists transforming concepts of space and identity.

Spring 57/Washer 59, 2012, cotton floss and wool yarn on burlap, 5.5 x 5.5” front: Equilibrium, 2012, thread on linen, 24 x 24” back: Stroke, 2011, thread on linen, 13 x 15.5”


30 Grand Street Ground Floor . New York NY 10013 hours: Wednesday–Sunday, 12-6pm phone: 212 334 0204 . web: kestingray.com . email: info@kestingray.com

KESTING RAY

Heather L. Johnson . suck squeeze bang blow  

Exhibition Dates: May 10–June 03, 2012

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