Ziran Muse: Jess Johnson
Introduction by fellow RAiR cohort, Lucien Shapiro
Who's that girl? (who's that girl?)
Who's that girl? (who's that girl?)
After my first few meetings on the RAiR compound this theme song rang through my ears. If you don't know what it's from thats probably a good thing, because what I watch behind closed doors would probably change the entirety of your opinion on me as a human being... and what mindlessness I require to shut my brain off. As I drone on and clearly go farther off task on this very important assignment my wife has bestowed upon me, let me use some words to describe Jess.
- Cat: since I met her, I have never seen a cat and not thought of my dear friend.
- Alien: she just coincides with whatever space creatures may exist, she is her own.
- Tie Dye/Pop culture: self explanatory.
- Sweetheart: always kind, always considerate, full of wisdom, and eager for more.
- Tidy/Clean/Organized: the first time I saw her studio I saw order, pens, stencils, etc. All labeled with their own sections gridded with neon tape. Then the cleanly labeled cat donations of medicines, tubes, and I don't even know what. Then I saw the work. Holy crap I am not even sure how this sorcery can even happen. So clean, so perfect, and the depth... wooowwwww.
Ok I realize I can just keep using words but then that would be longer than her interview, and no one wants that. Jess Johnson seems to really know how to humbly express her unconscious creative vocabulary onto the paper. The worm hole she is drawing from is very well what many of us are thinking and feeling. Some are delicate and deep like a gentle acid trip. Others are in your face, screaming genitalia with Q-bert quizzed patterns. Definitely her work takes you on a space carnival fantasy ride. A gallop into the meditative fifth wall. It seems that she has always followed her true path, and the road has continued to gloriously weave that path into our lives. She is funny, extraordinary, and very intelligent.
We miss her. That alone should clearly describe a person past the accolades, gallery and museum walls, and more currently with her friend Simon in the planetarium skies. She makes work for all to enjoy and elements for each pay grade to afford. So if you like any of the things I mentioned above I would highly recommend diving into her world of works. It is much more than I could ever try to express or convince in this piddling little introduction.
Some background and how you got into art?
I’m Jessica Juanita Johnson. I'm from New Zealand but I've got an American mother and an English father. My mom picked up my dad hitchhiking on Route 66 when she was 21. He kept traveling and ended up in New Zealand where he wrote to my Mum and asked her to join him and that's how they ended up there. I grew up in a tiny little beach town called Mount Maunganui in the North Island. I always loved drawing and did that compulsively since I was a kid. I would fill up every inch of paper with a lot of repetitive patterns and interlocked, smiley faces and worms. I still draw a lot of the same things now. I went to art school in Christchurch in the South island and studied painting. But I got a bit disillusioned when I was at art school. I just lost confidence or something like that. Dropped out for a bit. Became disconnected from that pure enjoyment art had given me as a kid.
After art school, I didn't make art for quite a few years. I just traveled and worked. But I always had notebooks I would doodle in although it was very private. Nothing I’d show anyone. I wasn't involved in the art world or exhibiting anywhere. Then in my late twenties I started doing hand drawn posters for my friend's bands and exhibitions. Around that time, me and a boyfriend lived on this big rambling compound. And we turned it into a little DIY venue called Hell that had an exhibition space and a band room. We used to put on big parties and I'd do like a hand drawn poster for every event. That was kind of my way back into making art and showing it to people.
It got quite popular and people used to collect the posters. We started getting asked to do events or exhibitions at other places. That culminated in getting an invitation from the Tate Modern in London to take part in their 10th anniversary celebrations. Along with 50 other art spaces from around the world, we were given a certain amount of square footage in their Turbine Hall to do whatever we wanted with. So we basically recreated Hell Gallery there. That was the ultimate for our little DIY space, so far from its origins. We peaked then and closed down shortly after. I broke up with my ex and decided to start drawing full time.
I had saved money from my work as an installer and decided to take a year off because I was a bit burnt out. I just drew constantly. And in that first year I actually sold my first works and was able to break even financially by the end of it. I also got some interest from a commercial gallery and was put in a semi big institutional show and things just kept building. I've been working as an artist ever since. Ha sorry that was a long background answer.
Are some of your earlier memories drawing or being interested in patterns and how things fit together?
I've got a really broken memory and I don't remember much of my childhood at all. But my mum has kept a bunch of my school projects in a box in the attic. When I visit home I always go up and look at them. They are all meticulously decorated like every page has these elaborate hand drawn borders and there are illustrations for every topic. I find them really interesting to look at because there's very direct threads to what I'm still drawing now. A lot of interconnecting geometry and organic forms, like the worms. I was drawing worms when I was five and I’m still drawing them now.
What is a worm?
I don't really like ascribing language or trying to explain things… I feel a bit reticent about trying to put the world I draw into words. I feel like if I had more of an aptitude with language, I'd be writing short sci-fi stories or something like that. But talking about the world always feels awkward like pushing a square peg into a round hole. It's a visual cosmology or language, not a wordy one.
But my thoughts around the worms are that the knowledge of the world is retained within them. There’s also different types of worms. Like a taxonomy of the different types. The worm balls I guess are the hive mind or the brain. And then there's like singular skinny worms which uncoil themselves from the mass, and then they're kind of let loose in the world to find an orifice to enter. I guess that's like the transfer or seeding of ideas. And then there's these like these humongous worms made of sections of flesh and machine. They’re always coiled in an ouroboros and act as a kind of planetary engine or something like that. So yeah there’s a lot of murky stuff that I ascribe to the worms over the years, but I feel silly trying to talk about them.
Just the act of drawing the worms always provides relief to me. As a rest from all of the hard math and geometry that the rest of the world is made up of. It’s like yinyang or oscillating between the subconscious and the conscious. Order needs chaos, that type of thing. Without the organic forms the world would be too cold.
So when you're drawing, do you view the geometric stuff as the order, because you're measuring things and being very calculated. Then the worms are the free things?
Yeah it’s also like the math and the geometry represent control. It can feel very much like a prison. There’s such a rigid methodology in how I construct my drawings. So the control and rigidity kind of builds up and then you need a release from it. And the worms and alien heads are the release… just being able to play and draw organic lines. Not being shackled to a ruler.
Your work is described as “ideologies of technology and flesh, both ancient and futuristic.” Is this how you describe it?
No, that’s just kind of some easy art speak which sounds like it says something, but doesn't really say a lot. It gets the marketing people off my back who need a couple of sentences. It's as meaningless as someone saying, “oh my work is influenced by music” or something like that.
Then how would you describe your work?
It's just a byproduct of me trying to have control in my life. We have so little control in the world which I feel greatly. So in the studio I get to create this little universe and, you know, be the golden dictator of it. Also, it gives me something to do.
With art practices - I hate that word - as artists we sometimes let our compulsions drive our work. With me it creates this single-minded funneling where my work gets more and more rigid and ordered. And then this tension is also building where I want to smash it up or break out of it, which is very hard to do because it's like you've just built this prison of a ‘professional practice’ around yourself.
Do you need to get into a head space before you sit down and work? How do you prepare?
I do move around quite a bit and am always working in new spaces. There’s quite a process that I have to go through before I can work in a new studio. It needs to be completely purged of previous inhabitants. I’ll clean and quite often I'll repaint the studio to obliterate all traces of other people.
I like to create in very sterile, clean, white cubes. So I can shut the door on the outside world and inside everything is very ordered and has its correct spot. I usually have to do all of that first before I start working. I don’t want the outside world to intrude too much. Yeah, it's all very controlling isn’t it?
Does the text come first or the imagery in your work? Or do they go together?
I would say in 85% of my drawings, the text comes first. I usually start a new series of drawings when I move into a new studio or start a residency. It always begins by opening up my documents where I save my words and phrases that I record. I pull things from books I read, articles, or weird tech speak and niche areas of knowledge on the internet, which all have their own lexicon. I’m attracted to certain words and always recognise them. I'm also attracted to just how the letters look on the page, the rhythm of the phrases. So when I am about to begin a new series I'll select several words or phrases that will be the starting point for the drawings. And then I work from there. Whatever the words are will usually give me the tone of the drawing. I'll have central elements and little sketches, and then I'll just start to pair them with the text and kind of build a mood from that.
So in this previous interview you did with your mom, which is about the quilts you’ve collaborated on together, it’s obvious your mom is very proud of you. She says something like, “I dragged her to all these quilting shows. She was around quilting her whole life. She saw me piecing things and arranging things.” There is a lot of overlap between quilting and the methodology you’ve developed in your work now. Do you think that being exposed to quilting has had an influence on you?
Yeah. I also think me and mum share a very similar brain. We've both got the same problem with language, like some type of dyslexia or something where we butcher words and pronunciations. Like I'll say the end of the word at the start or something like. We both get really tongue tied, but I'm much better now than I used to be. But I had to do speech therapy when I was a kid.
Through the process of collaborating with her, I realized the way she constructs the quilts, or thinks about the composition, or the weird spatial things she does in her head when making quilts, is identical to what I do with my drawings. Like we know how many segments of something will fit exactly in a space but find it very difficult to verbalize why. I can instantly recognize what she's doing when we're trying to communicate about something in the studio but it’s done more visually than verbally. If we have to resort to describing something in words we both struggle and end up frustrated and fighting. So I think there’s something similar in how our brains work and how we make sense of the world.
Also as a kid, I’m sure I was very influenced by watching her make quilts…building these complex beautiful things from very small components of scraps.
I think that your web store is really good, especially compared to most artists who don't know how to commercialize their work. I’m very impressed by all the different products that you have and how you show it. Does being able to commercialize your art in this way come naturally? And do you struggle between that balance of fine art, low and high?
As well as my Mums influence I also have my dad in me who is entrepreneurial, a businessman of sorts. But he always worked for himself. His first business was a trampoline park in New Zealand. It was always drummed into me the importance of being your own boss and not relying on other people.
I've always had a bit of distrust of the art world because I know that attention in it is very fleeting and fickle. I was lucky in receiving a bit of attention early on and being able to sell my work. But I never wanted to rely on the artworld for anything.
I never believed the attention I got early on would go on forever. It’s just this little moment in the sun and then it moves on to the next batch of artists. It was really important to me to have some control over my own income and I knew that I couldn't rely on art sales alone. So I make sure to have different income streams coming in and doing merchandise was one thing that I can produce and control myself. And I can sell it directly to people through Instagram and social media. I don't have to give 50% to my dealers.
I think it’s kind of looked down upon by a lot of people in the art world, like it might cheapen your art or reputation or something. But most of the people that like my work are never gonna be able to afford an original drawing. Like, I can't afford an original drawing. My friends can't afford one. So being able to produce things like t-shirts and bags and skateboards and limited edition prints and things like that has always been really satisfying to me. I like seeing my work outside of galleries or collector’s homes. The art world is a really exclusionary place that a lot of people don't have access to or feel comfortable in. But everyone likes having art on the wall. And everyone wears clothes. I don't ever want my work only being available only to a wealthy few.
Who collects your work?
I think the collectors of my work are attracted to something in the artwork that resonates with something personal to them, their own interests or nostalgia, whatever that is. They’re not buying it to flip and make money. Or following art world trends. Most of them are buying it to live with it on their wall. As opposed to any commercial reasons, because I don’t really think my work is ever gonna be a good investment.
What’re the next 10 years like for you?
I'll be spending more time in New Zealand because I wanna be close to my parents. So New Zealand's gonna be my base. I love being there, but I also get itchy feet. So three to six months per year I’ll do residencies overseas. That's quite important to me. In terms of what mediums my work might take, I don’t feel much of a pull to VR anymore. But Simon and I have spent the last six months making a movie for planetariums. It’s the first project that we've been really excited about since doing the Terminus VR project together. Again I think some of my excitement is because we get to show it outside art galleries, and also that it's a social thing for people to do. Watching a movie in a planetarium is unique, fun, and it gets people together and then they talk about it afterwards. And that's really attractive to me. It’s a contrast to the solipsism of the VR headsets. I really like that planetariums are also in weird places all over the world. Like here in Roswell, the museum is attached to a planetarium. So it can be toured to all of these regional spots outside of the main cities.
So say you were on a deserted island and you only had two snacks and you had to eat those two snacks for the rest of your life.
Oh God. I think I would just have Diet Coke.
In a can or a bottle?
I don't like bottles at all. I only like it in cans or a fountain. If I could have a Diet Coke fountain on the island I’d have that. I'd really like ice to come with it as well. So diet Coke and I think I would just go for potato chips. I'd find it really hard to choose what type. But it would be the Kettle salt and vinegar ones. The good quality ones. Yeah. What were yours?
I think I might do something crunchy and then something sweet. Probably like some sort of chip or sourdough toast.
Sourdough toast is not a snack that's cheating.
Ok maybe like a tortilla chip. And then my sweet thing like peanut butter chocolate cup. The dark chocolate one.
If you could do like tortilla chips and guac that would put it over the line on an island. That'd be amazing. And swap Diet Coke for a Margarita.
Yeah be just like drunk and in paradise the whole time. So let's talk about the cats, because I feel like this could be a plug. So say whatever you want about that.
I guess all of the other residents at RAiR know that I’m very involved in cat activities, mainly street cat activities. So every new place I go, I generally get involved in some kind of cat activity. I want to quantify that I love all animals, but I've just fallen into the cat stuff because I know how to help them. So at RAiR, when we first got here, there were several resident feral cats on the property. On my first meeting with the Director Larry Bob… I must have mentioned cats and he said that he had a cat living underneath his shed. I asked him to show me where it was. And so that became the first cat I trapped and spayed. Unfortunately we found out she’d already had kittens so had to look after the whole family for several weeks till the kittens were weaned and adopted out. Sorry, I'm rambling now. But I started a little project of getting the residency feral cats spayed and neutered to make life a bit easier for them and to stop the endless cycle of kittens becoming coyote snacks. Through my cat activities I also meet a lot of interesting locals who do the same… but it also kind of opens you up to being a receptacle for people turning up with dumped or unfortunate cats. At one point there were nine in the house and several outside we were feeding. There's a big stray animal problem in Roswell and
not a lot of resources to help with it. I’m trying to find homes for several of them. People can go to my linktree to see available cats for adoption or donate food and medicine via amazon: https://linktr.ee/fleshdozer
So Ziran means “natural, spontaneous, and free.” It comes from Daoism and it means to push away outside influence and embrace your own authenticity. Do you think that you live Ziran personally or in your work?
I do think I try to push away outside influences. But I don't know if my artwork is natural and spontaneous and free. I shouldn't be so negative about it, I keep calling it a prison, so yeah that probably means I would like more spontaneity and freedom in my work. So that is something that I am hoping to connect with again while I'm here. What was the other one?
Embracing your own authenticity.
I don't know any other way to be so that's easy for me. Yes. Cool.
Yeah. We’re done!
Words: Lucien Shapiro (@lucienshapiro)
Interview Questions: Kelly Wang Shanahan (@theziran)
Photography: Victor Yanez-Lazcano (@yanezlazcano)
Muse: Jess Johnson (@flesh_dozer)
Shot in Roswell, New Mexico. August 2023.