Editors' pick

Mariah Anne Johnson: In the Pines

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Editorial Review

Indoors, the outdoors opens up
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 19, 2012

An unnatural forest greets visitors to Flashpoint Gallery.

Step no more than a few feet inside the door, and you’ll enter a thicket of dozens of bedsheets hanging limply from the ceiling in an abstract evocation of trees. This artificial woods extends all the way to the rear of the gallery, enveloping and closing in on you as you negotiate the space. A few paintings on paper -- also featuring trees, suggested by dramatic black slash marks -- are pinned to the walls here and there. In some places, paint has been applied directly to the walls.

Called “In the Pines” (ostensibly after the folk song whose several variations all include the lyric “in the pines, where the sun never shines”), the exhibition is the latest step in the artistic evolution of Mariah Anne Johnson, a talented young artist known primarily for site-specific installations featuring neatly folded piles of colorful bed linens. “In the Pines” is her attempt to incorporate her studio practice, which consists mainly of more traditional, 2-D artwork (paintings, drawings and prints) with her better-known, immersive art installations, which the artist has described as “paintings you can walk into.”

It’s a largely successful -- if less than seismic -- shift. And it reveals an artist unsatisfied with repeating herself or resting on her laurels. To make it work, Johnson utilizes -- or, rather, subverts -- an old art trick here, to interesting effect.

Landscape painters are typically taught that lighter, more muted colors (such as the blue of the sky) recede, with bolder, brighter colors appearing to move forward. That’s one of the ways that a flat artwork creates the illusion of depth, also known as atmospheric perspective.

For “In the Pines,” Johnson reverses that traditional order, hanging the brightest sheets toward the back of the gallery and placing the duskiest ones at the front. In other words, you don’t enter the forest so much as you emerge from it, into a kind of clearing.

Visiting “In the Pines” isn’t meant to feel like getting lost in the woods after all. Rather, it’s like coming home. A painting on the rear wall features a small image of a comfy, overstuffed armchair.

Inspired by Johnson’s memories of visiting her grandmother’s home in Hot Springs, Ark. -- a little yellow house, as she remembers it, surrounded by tall pines and an hour or so from where the artist grew up -- “In the Pines” may have a backstory, but Johnson remains hopeful that its subject is open-ended enough to invite multiple interpretations. To that end, Johnson has placed low stools throughout the gallery to allow visitors a place to slow down, sit and reflect about what they’re seeing, and feeling.

Despite the contemplative nature of the work, there’s also a surprising theatrical quality to the show. It’s reinforced by the hanging of the sheets, which vaguely suggest the curtains on a stage. Yet for Johnson, a former dancer, we’re not the audience, but the actors. Our presence may activate the space, but Johnson wants us to supply our own narrative.

Whether that tale might involve creepiness and danger (as in “Hansel and Gretel”) or romance and magic (as in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), the artist remains scrupulously neutral. She’s merely set the stage.

Like the song that lends the show its title -- a song whose many versions encompass themes ranging from loneliness and heartache to gruesome dismemberment -- Johnson’s “In the Pines” offers no single, definitive reading.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, October 19, 2012

You might notice something odd before you get very deep into “In the Pines.” That’s the smell of mothballs.

It’s no accident, either. Although Mariah Anne Johnson maintains an extensive “library” of bed linens in her studio -- more than 700 pounds, she estimates, all sorted by color -- she doesn’t keep her sheets in mothballs. Her, grandmother, on the other hand, did.

(In the past, sensitive observers have noted that Johnson’s installations sometimes reek of laundry detergent, the result of washing her art material, which she culls, used, from thrift stores.)

For Johnson, the mothballs -- which she has hidden throughout the space, overhead -- are like Proust’s madeleines. Unpleasant to some, the odor for her conjures fond memories of childhood.

Sure, she could have used pine needles. But unlike C.S. Lewis, who brought children into the magical land of Narnia through the back of a wardrobe, Johnson doesn’t want anyone at Flashpoint to forget that this pine forest exists only in the imagination.