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Sarah Anne Johnson

Communing with nature and trying to be truthful in representing it is nothing new in North American art, especially somewhere in or close to the echoing vastness of the Canadian wilderness. In Western culture, identifying our surrounding landscape with nature, and therefore more generally and intrinsically real, is something we are accustomed to. What was once radical and unusual has for many years become a staple of broadly popular taste, acquiring at times a note of kitsch in its quotidian usage. As a subject, “nature” has existed in Western art for over two centuries and remains an emanation of modern life. But now we find it hard to disentangle landscape, or Mother Earth, from our ontology and our cosmology. It is something that the Romantic movement brought to the fore, in part as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, and which our conservationist viewpoints now celebrate.

Sarah Anne Johnson, FTA, 2021, pigment print with oil paint, 45 x 30 inches. © Sarah Anne Johnson. All images courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.

It is a social and cultural idea, one of our most beautiful and hopeful, on one hand, and also sometimes hackneyed, on the other. “Woodland,” Sarah Anne Johnson’s first solo show at the Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea, Manhattan, takes on the challenge of this theme, unapologetically. She directly and vividly presents a visionary experience of the natural world, seen and understood through the magic lantern of landscape photography. She does this in the normal sense of procedure and result, but also in a more subtle, submerged way that is intrinsic to the potential of photography, and at the same time at odds with its putative empiricism. The basic promise of the camera, that it tells the truth, is set up and used by Johnson, and added to by mixed-media interventions—by reimagining the photos as manifestations of a higher, hidden reality, a revealed, idealistic truth about the secrets of the natural world. Mining the tacit, unconscious, preternatural subtext photos can generate, Johnson intimates the usually hidden, even occult implications that taking pictures can have. She has created a body of work that shows us the natural and the potentially supernatural worlds that live and coexist in forests. The woods of Manitoba, close to Winnipeg, which is the artist’s home, provide a living synecdoche for all the world’s wilderness. Beliefs could come into it but have very little to do with this essentially experiential phenomena. There may be no explanation, but the experience remains.

And although using this medium to document and approach this subject is nothing new, Johnson’s methodologically innovative and unapologetically beautiful mixed-media technique and her hyperintense, almost combatively esoteric view of the landscape and natural world overcome any staleness or clichéd reading around these images. Each is unique and particular in image and treatment, and coalesces into a picture that combines the oddly juxtaposed effects of stained glass and acid flashback, head shops and clean air hikes, oil paint and urgent, serious prayer. A reality is unfolded that is sweetly persuasive in asking us to see the landscape as an infinite cathedral, interior and exterior, and at the same time a place of worship and the object of that fervency.

Sarah Anne Johnson, LOLA3, 2020, pigment print with acrylic paint, 40 x 60 inches.

Confronting the works in person provides a different experience from seeing them digitally, despite their exceptional reproducibility. In the gallery space, the works in the show generate an encompassing physically felt sensation—of being in the landscape and of having the invisible-made-seen. The primal quality of the scenery permeates our senses. The space of the images seems to quiver and tesselate, and implies the presence of a greater than three-dimensional spatial fabric, invoking various notions from particle physics and non- Euclidian geometry to Theosophy and New Age spirituality (in a fully knowing, open-minded way). A vastation results, in the images and the viewer, a response, that feels like receiving and sending out waves of calm but pleasurable motion. This in turn produces a feeling between tranquil happiness and joyful kinesis—positive and lovely—as though our bodies have experienced an active energy release and have responded to a call.

It is possible to see these images as lighthearted and whimsical, and Johnson has celebrated the pastoral life of people entering the landscape for solace and fun before, to party, to work or make love and do drugs. And that affect is still present in “Woodland” to an extent: the feeling that we might be witnessing and experiencing a trippy, hallucinogenic fantasy. In Johnson’s work there has at times been an almost contemporary rococo or Art Nouveau stylization of a hippy back-to-the-land festival. But these photographs have another quality, something that holds us and implies we are seeing the spirit of the forest directly, something that resists conservative dismissal, cannot be trivialized or reductively explained, perhaps not even understood. The works are less William Morris and more early Mondrian, during his pre-abstract, symbolist period. Johnson’s mixed-media photos have some of that same symbolist intensity to them, or of Klimt at his most exuberant, or even van Gogh.

Installation view, “Woodlands,” 2020, Yossi Milo Gallery, New York. © Sarah Anne Johnson.

While it may be a convention, on some level, looking at forests, whether literal or pictorial, stretching endlessly away does conjure a sacred and encompassing, multitudinous feeling, a reaction that readily synchs with a spiritual or religious perspective, and exists in diverse contexts. Environmentalism, meditation, peacefulness, as well as our personal notions of Ultimate Reality seem to intertwine when we do this. But to do so today, to clear away the layers of received expectation and culturally conditioned responses as the main theme of interest, requires a full-on commitment and total submersion in both the external experience of the landscape and in the overlapping studio practice. Sincere hyper-romanticism and an effectively secular approach to this fundamentally spiritual subject are hard to get away with. The artist better have produced a body of work that unpretentiously and humbly, but nonetheless confidently and expressively, approaches this huge realm and does something original with it. Sarah Anne Johnson has. ❚

“Woodland” was exhibited at Yossi Milo Gallery, New York, from October 22, 2020, to January 9, 2021.

Benjamin Klein is a Brooklyn- and Montreal-based artist and writer, and co-director of McBride Contemporain in Montreal.

Volume 40, Number 1: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #156, published May 2021.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.