The Post-Medium Painter
Helen Johnson’s wildly referential paintings repurpose myths to tackle contemporary afflictions and investigate the curious nature of Australianness – while calling into question the nature of the medium itself.
Helen Johnson treats painting as a slightly unstable and therefore unrestricted discipline within which to work. She is known for her nuanced investigation into both the history and the material and theoretical limits of painting, a medium that she uses as a vehicle for exploring the social, political, cultural, environmental and psychological issues that bug the contemporary citizen. Her work merges grand narratives with quotidian instances, which are conveyed in compositions that combine figurative representations and abstraction through complex masking and tightly woven forms and colours.
During a time at which artists and galleries tend to move across mediums and focus doggedly on concepts, timeframes and themes, Helen Johnson is a steadfast painter. She tells me that she began to paint as an eight year old and moved directly from high school into a painting degree at RMIT. From there, aside from the odd foray into video, she has honed and expanded her craft. As a green 26-year-old, Johnson was included in the NEW06 exhibition, curated by Juliana Engberg, at the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art in 2006, a move that signalled her firm footing within the Australian art scene. She steadily gained purchase, joining Melbourne’s Sutton Gallery later that year. Since then, she has continued to make significant work, exhibit regularly, as well as completed a PhD at Monash University.
Like many artists, Johnson also writes. Her prose is smart and decidedly fluff-free. It tends to proffer (like her paintings do) many routes into a layered and complex set of ideas. In 2014, she published her doctoral thesis in a slim ... Subscribe to read this article in full