Sarah in Wonderland: Sarah Anne Johnson

“Totally alien. I felt like I had landed on Mars. It was unlike anything I had even seen or done before.” Sarah Anne Johnson, the Winnipeg photographer with an aesthetic Midas touch, is talking about an invitational trip she and 20 artists, scientists and crew took by invitation, to the Arctic Circle in October of 2009. Out of that journey she produced a body of work called “Arctic Wonderland,” and like her fictional counterpart, the rabbit-hole in which she found herself was full of fancy and consternation. It took five months before she could look at the pictures she had taken. “I needed that much time to be able to look at any photo as just a photo, not tied in with my memories and smells and what was happening outside the frame. Then I started painting on them. Fireworks and Party Boat were the first ones I did and from there it just started pouring out.”

Fireworks, 2010, unique chromogenic print with photospotting ink, acrylic ink, gouache and india ink, flush mounted to archival board, 71.12 x 106.68 cm. All images © Sarah Anne Johnson. Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto, and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

What poured out was a range of chromogenic prints that negotiated a space between the sublime and the goofy, the majestic and the menacing. In Black Box, a line of Lilliputs walk toward a looming and ominous building; in Triangle and Box equally large structures rise in their improbable beauty above the horizon line; in Cheerleader and Arctic Circle Banner, Johnson adds acrylic and photospotting inks to the surface of the photograph to create an atmosphere that mixes the celebratory with the ridiculous. In the print that gives this body of work its name, Johnson places blue capital letters on a distant mountain spelling out the words, “Arctic Wonderland,” in a parodic re-staging of the Hollywood sign above Los Angeles. The print suggests that our attempts to settle the North in a sustainable way will be as reliable a story as we get from a Hollywood movie.

Box, 2011, unique chromogenic print, embossed and screen printed, 40.64 x 60.96 cm.

Johnson had narrative problems of her own. “I was pretty confident with the darker pictures but less so with the cheerleading ones because it seemed as if I was making light of everything. But without them the work was too one-layered, and it was a layer we all know and that gets talked about a lot.” Her decision to go with the cheerleading and party images introduced into the work an additional element of self-directed irony. “I went in thinking of us as cheerleaders and that’s why I set up shots of people jumping in the air and forming a triangle. I wanted to make art with a social conscience, but I had been asking myself whether art actually does anything, does it cause change, or are we just preaching to the choir? The cheerleader images were also the riskiest pictures because I was making fun of myself for going on the trip in the first place.”

Cheerleader, 2011, unique chromogenic print with photospotting ink mounted to archival board, 81.60 x 116.84 cm.

The multi-media photographs in “Arctic Wonderland” are characteristically funny, poignant and disturbing, and they underline the restless honesty that keeps Sarah Anne Johnson making such challenging work. “I’ve always felt a deep frustration with the limitations of photography and what I can do with it. But I’m evolving in how I deal with that. I’m thinking more and more about the importance of having personal risk in your art.”

To order a copy of Issue #119, Photography, click here.

For more on Sarah Anne Johnson through the Julie Saul Gallery, see here.

Volume 30, Number 3: Photography

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #119, published September 2011.

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