Johnson’s Cabinet: a quirky, curious exploration of collage

Opening on the 25th, the List is currently showing “Cabinet of Wonders: Marvelous Transformations and Other Accidental Images,” an exhibit of paintings and collages by Sue Johnson, Steven Muller Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Art History Department Chair of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The exhibit was opened after her lecture “Wonder, Transformation and the Nature of Artifice” and will be open concurrently with her exhibit “Cabinet of Wonders: Sources and Resources” in McCabe Library.

Like a leap into Alice’s wonderland where everything is “curiouser and curiouser,” Johnson’s mixed media work combines and arranges snippets of science, history, and food in surprising and amusing ways with a subtle edge. Her lecture, intended to give listeners “a sense of the things that I [Johnson] look at,” provided an abbreviated retrospective with a special focus on the influences on her work. Among other master artists, Johnson’s influences include Monet, Magritte, and Ernst, as well as scientific illustrators. Of science Johnson observes: “I’m really intrigued with odd science, peculiar science.”

Particularly clear in the pieces displayed in the List is Johnson’s interest in “the power of the artist to create a reality.” The outer room of the exhibit includes two series of pictures: “Object Poems” and “The Abstractions.” The poem objects read like visual riddles in their simple yet mystifying arrangement of various words and images. Two poem objects in particular, diagramming the human head with labels such as: “Its Canine,” “Philip,” and “In Brothel In Algeria” appear to explore what Johnson refers to as a “rupture between language and meaning.” Her hanging Abstraction series would read almost too true to medical diagrams were it not for the startling paisley explosions and blooming of lips that shock the viewer into bewildered fascination.

Her work in “finding a new image out of an old image” is further explored in the panoramas of the inner room, a series titled “Episodes in a Fantastic Landscape.” Here again the viewer is pulled into a space that is whimsically surreal. Myles Dakan ’10 observes that Johnson’s use of scanning technology is especially appealing; rather than merely setting the objects upon each other, Johnson succeeds in creating an impressively unified piece. Allison McCarthy ’08 reflects on the meditative possibilities of pieces such as “Expedition to Rock Bottom” where layers of earth are replaced by edible and familiar surfaces: “I could stare at that cheese forever.”

During her lecture Johnson reminded her audience, “Humor is the vehicle through which a lot of this is delivered,” granting them permission to laugh at her dry and daring jaunts into an impossible even absurd alternate world. For a greater sense of her work, McCabe’s exhibit displays some of the sources that Johnson used in developing these and other projects in her latest work the “Alternate Encyclopedia” inspired by the possibilities of artistic control over the perception of the world through encyclopedias, like those from which she herself created so many images. The McCabe and List exhibits will remain open through February 28.