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Rae Johnson

Artist Statement

The post-modern world is a godless world. Humanity has become morally superior to God. God has punished his most faithful, Job, and let his son, Jesus, be brutally sacrificed, leading to the lament, "If there is a God, why is there such suffering in the world?" If God is omnipresent, then he knew that Eve would give Adam the apple and all of the subsequent suffering and punishment was essentially a set-up job by a sadistic psychopath. Of course this modern realization has more to do with the development of humanity's psyche than a free floating phantasm, surveying and manipulating our destiny. We are left alone with the human calamities of war, starvation and racial and economic slavery. We are solely responsible for the collapsing ecology and potential annihilation resulting from a nuclear accident or war. We are left with the existential realization, "What you see is what you get. If we fuck it up, we're fucked!"

Most of my work over the past ten years has dealt with the spiritual desolation of the post-modern psyche. We no longer have hope that science and technology will replace God, saving us from all ills as we did at the beginning of the 20th century. Many of us now see the ignorant misuse of our technology as the direct cause of our present global peril. My Madonna Series, (1979-1983), depicts the new God as Technology, and the new Mary impregnated by the mass-media, often depicted as a TV monitor, as in "The Technological Rape of the Virgin". My Angel Series, (1982-1984), narrated the disembodiment of the Human Spirit, using the archaic symbol of the Angel to represent humanity's link with a higher spiritual awareness, being ignored in various familiar contemporary settings such as "Angel in the Rivoli". The Rachel Series, (1984), showed a resignation to the inevitable corruption of the individual in contemporary Western society. Rachel is relentlessly pursued by animate and inanimate symbols of cultural materialism until she is ultimately overpowered and raped by the transcendental image of the Devil. The paintings that followed had no overt religious symbolism. The humanoids in the pictures had become phantoms and manikins. (Alchemical Love, 1985.) They were painted as empty shells caught in clichéd, mundane, staged environments. Finally, these environments became empty rooms within which inanimate objects carried only subliminal traces of their ghostly inhabitants. (Red Interior, 1985.) At this point the human narrative ended in my work.

In 1986 I turned to natural observation. The preceding work had reached some kind of conclusion. Making paintings from the direct observation of Nature was an honest and immediate way to rejuvenate myself and my work. The large oil paintings from 1987 to 1989 are composites of dozens of small studies painted on site. They are observations of the cycles of light and darkness, the movement of the wind and the elements over the sky, earth and water. Natural Phenomenon has taken the place of Human Narrative. The new work is more poetic and less literal. My hope is that the viewer will experience the emotional content of this work on a visceral level, like listening to music.

Statement: 1979-1995

In the late seventies and early eighties, I was acutely aware of my precarious position: I was a young woman painting; working in a predominantly male art-form, trying to overturn my position as Object and reclaim the territory of female sexuality. While working in New York in 1979, I began investigating the most extreme form of feminine objectification, (ultimately human objectification), to be found in the mass media: pornography and prostitution. I had to abandon my brushes and put myself in front of the camera in a piece of what I, at the time, called "life art". I modeled for an ad for a brothel in Screw magazine. I used a blowup of the ad in an installation piece in an exhibition titled Destroy Those Pictures at ChromaZone in 1981. My direct experience with pornography allowed me to become a "conscious" Object. This was necessary for me to feel justified in using pornographic imagery in my paintings; not as a voyeur but as a participant.

In 1980, the Feminine Principle, in the guise of the Virgin and the Mother-Goddess, surfaces in my paintings. I had been studying the writing of Carl Jung and Eric Neuman since 1976 and was aware of the recurring Archetypes in the historical religions of the world since the Paleolithic "Venuses". I exhibited a series of paintings depicting mainly the Christian Virgin in contemporary environments at Mercer Union titled Madonna in 1981.

Renaissance angels entered the paintings in 1982. After returning from the exhibition, O KromaZonein West Berlin, I was hospitalized with arthritis. I was unable to walk or use my hands. While recovering in hospital, I made a series of works on paper that introduced the symbol of the spirit penetrating and informing matter, the Angel. These pieces were reproduced in the first issue of C magazine. After my release from hospital I made a series of paintings of angels in bars and cafes of New York, Toronto and Berlin. These pieces were exhibited at the 49th Parallel and the Carmen Lamanna Gallery in 1983, and Toronto Painting '84 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The angel imagery was replaced by the demonic in the 1984 exhibition at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery. In this exhibition the paintings illustrate images from the unconscious. Dreams. Fantasies. Contemporary icons ­ guns, cars, TV personalities and "punks" live with the flow into primordial devils.

During the period from 1985 to1986, overt symbolism was gradually replaced by an interest in perceptual distortion. The images are made from observation and found media images. But these paintings are really about space. The extreme concavical distortion of empty rooms draws the viewer into the painting. The viewer becomes Subject. The viewer's perception of the invented spatial illusion is the content of the paintings.

By 1987, I had abandoned narrative representation to work from the observation of nature. Studies from site were developed in the studio into a monumental scale. The resolution of the work depended on the viewer being visually engulfed by the paintings; to be "inside" the invented space. They were exhibited in 1988 and 1989 at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery and numerous public galleries. An excerpt from the statement written for the exhibitions ­ "Šlike listening to music."

The Montreal Massacre in 1990 jarred my attention back to figurative art. The paintings refocused on human representation. The Nature Paintings and the interiors are ongoing.

The new paintings of 1989-1994 employ western symbols of the divine Child/Nature/Mysticism/Science, interested by current images from journalists, art, pornography and advertising. If these paintings "mean" anything it is in the way the pictures in them act on and resonate within the viewer.

Statement: 1995

Painting can safely be explained as pleasant design and perceptual system. But sometimes we glimpse proof of the frailty of our contemporary belief in an orderly rational universe. This is when a painting can strike fear and loathing in our civilized composure. Painting as threat.

Painting as a diagram of inner experience draws a precarious line between the monde concrete we bump into and the unknowable dimensions of thought: the dance of madness and reason. In this reflexive visual ritual we recognize our own inner perceptions as we recognize a stranger's interpretation of the objective world. We remember the precognitive visual language of our species as it is reflected back to us from painting: our animal-mystic dreams. Our self-knowledge is more than the splashing about of electro-chemical storms in our brains. Mystery betrays the known.

Painting is a perceptually abstract construction. Paintings are visible as translations of sensory memory within the biological structure of the brain. But they are viewed and reconstructed in the mind's eye. Painting's sensual quality of colour and tactility act as emotional transmitters, re-attaching our isolated psyches to the spiritual identity of our species.

Sometimes sublime reactions can be aroused in the viewer. Understanding what we perceive in a painting cannot be measured in space and time. The shifting representation of conventional truth resides on the surface of memory. The memory and history of perception is kept alive in the manual tracings of painting, recording the internal reality of our transient lives.

These paintings do not intend to lull the viewer with the security of images and text mediated through conventional photo-realism or French philosophy; rendering any content safely detached and academic. Nor is the viewer entertained with the wallpaper of abstract "compositions". These paintings are uneasy fragments existing between objective experience and subjective perception. The content of these paintings exists in the conceptual space between conventional representation and the boundaries of the invisible. March 21, 1995.

Oh Canada! Panel

I began working from nature on site in 1987. The first exhibition if this work was in 1988 in a solo show at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery, Toronto. My most recent outdoor work was exhibited in October, 1995 at the Justina Barnicke Gallery, Hart House, University of Toronto.

Much of my work has been and continues to be devoted to social commentary. In 1983 I exhibited a series of paintings of angels in downtown Toronto and West Berlin clubs, at the 49th Parallel, New York, curated by the late Carmen Lamanna. It was titled Commentary '92-'93, and included Joanne Tod, John Brown and Marc Deguerre. I continued this work seen at the Toronto Painting '84 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The most recent exhibition in this vein was titled Bambino Miracolo in collaboration with Paul Petro Comtemporary Art, Toronto, May '95.

The Nature Paintings began in 1987 after moving to Flesherton, a village 30 minutes south of Owen Sound. I have been painting my pond in Flesherton from basically the same vantage point for nearly ten years now. The image of the pond, sky and trees is a constant in the environment, but the elements: the wind and weather, the passage of night to day and the seasons [are ever changing].

When I first began painting nature I was uneasy because I felt that relevant contemporary painting could not include pictures of trees. It definitely could not include imagery that could be associated with the Group of Seven. Many artists and academics alike considered their kind of painting a quaint nationalist movement of the 20s and 30s.

It has been difficult for me to reconcile my late 20th Century sensibilities with my obsession with chronicling the seasons passing over my pond in Flesherton. Lately, I have come to think that the need to paint my environment comes simply from existing as a northern person who is constantly engaged with surviving our extreme elements. The northern experience is tied to the sun's retreat into long cold nights and the fleeting endless days of summer. The forces of Nature are etched as deeply in our psyches now as when Tom Thompson, Emily Carr and the Group of Seven were making their paintings in the true north strong and free. Today, in 1996, I work in a spirit much like theirs. I continue to find a source of regenerating creative power for my work in the relentless force of nature.

Statement re: Drawing

Drawing is an organic scan of the underworld. Drawing is the first place amorphous inklings congeal into objective form. Drawing mediates between the invisible interior world and the mechanistic physical perception of itself. Between Knowing and Seeing.

I begin drawing. Black marks onto a white surface. Organic manual tracings from the void into the light. I observe the immediate environment: walls, baseboards, floors, television sets, trees, moon, water, rain. Images from favourite picture books. The memory of another place or a person or an object may penetrate the surface. An unsolicited image may reveal itself. The drawing is complete when the marks have defined each element in accord with its momentary resolution.

Black marks on a white surface. The marks have been isolated and meshed, ordered by human intelligence. The viewer reabsorbs the marks. An adjustment of focus is induced to accept the information. The object releases its amorphous tracings of the underworld into the eye of the viewer.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Artists Files

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