In her current work at the Illingworth Kerr Gallery, Winnipeg based Sarah Anne Johnson continues an exploration into personal experience through ‘straight’ and ‘constructed’ narrative through photography and bronze sculptures to tell the story of her grandmother’s mistreatment under the care of Dr. Ewen Cameron.
Prefacing “Nan” (Johnson’s name for her grandmother) within the exhibition as an underlying presence in the exhibition, a long glass case provides 1950s newspaper documentation of Dr. Cameron’s ‘experimental’ and cruel treatments, diary entries and letters written by Johnson’s grandmother alongside letters and photographs of Johnson’s family.
Walking deeper into the centre of the gallery, nine-inch tall bronze figures of Nan are flanked by rows of framed, digitally-enlarged photographs, both actual and fictional. Two of the bronze figures gnaw upon thick twigs, which are either alarming replacements for arms, or act as a seeming burden of endless consumption and vivid regurgitation. One of the figures is shown from the waist up, appearing as though stuck fast in mud. Gouged rings line her body and slice across her breasts, and she seems exhausted with the effort of freeing herself. Another figure appears to be covered in a wormy rash resembling teeth marks, giving her clothed body the appearance of raw skin. Combined with Johnson’s added touch of slicing off the ‘face’ of the figure and refastening it the wrong way round, this three dimensional piece gives shape to the ‘outward’ and ‘inward’ signs of escape.
Image credit: Sarah Anne Johnson, "Blackout" 2009
The figures "Black Out" and "Rage" push these physical metaphors into slapstick. "Black Out" shows Nan’s head completely replaced with a large white box, while equally sterile white tubes cover both arms. "Rage" depicts Nan in a stance of effort, producing a mushroom-cloud of glistening dark-green.
Johnson uses an awareness of materiality and the narrative associations of bronze figures (‘fixed’ and ‘cast’ in their fateful bodies) alongside the vulnerability of cardboard, dried fur, wet-looking glazes, twigs, and sandy surfaces that resemble mud-caked skin. This visceral, humorous use of material in the figures allows an intimacy with the work that seems more about Johnson’s interpretation of Nan’s story than the decidedly stark, graphic version of media documentation.
Of the framed photographs, portraits of Nan and snapshots of Johnson’s family are shown in various stages of painted and drawn embellishment. In a baby photograph titled "Leslie Orlikow," a baby’s blurry face and clothed-body resemble a melted snowman which has sprouted a garden of penciled-in wicker and lace. "Family Tradition" shows Nan holding a child and baby on her lap, her benign smile askew within a painted and drawn layer of face, as if she were a fictional character dreamed by the children. Her arms and fingers are delicately painted into twisting vines of brown-green, grasping net-like around the baby and child.
Image Credit: Sarah Anne Johnson, "Birthday Party" 2009
Less resolved and more illustrational than the bronze figures, the photographs seem more like studies than finished works. Heightened by paint and graphite, pieces like "Leslie Orlikow" and "Family Tradition" are able to disturb a sense of photographic resolution or fixed truth, but seem much less self-aware of their materiality and the narrative potential of their limitations.
One particular exception is the piece "White Out," wherein Johnson repeats the boxed-head and tubular-arms of Nan, this time painted in delicate tones and placed in front of a backdrop of what appears to be a man-made touristy waterfall. Embellishment and photograph seem to mimic and blur each other, and Nan seems an oblivious, yet pose-happy vacationer made light by the banality and triteness of her re-imagined surroundings.
*All images courtesy of the artist, 2009.