Michel Modell and Mariah Anne Johnson

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Editorial Review

The story behind the work

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct. 14, 2011

We caught up with Mariah Anne Johnson as she was installing another site-specific sheet installation, this one in the Project Space of Harmon Art Lab.

The Arkansas-born artist traces the origin of her unusual interest to a mother and grandmother who were, in her words, "fabric hoarders." Her facility for sheet-folding, she explains, comes from helping with the laundry as a girl. Trained as a painter, Johnson made the transition to installation artist when she was in graduate school, stumbling onto stacking and folding sheets as "a way to make a painting without paint." The artist combines colors - using prints and patterns as transitional layers between solids - with a painter's eye. She buys the sheets secondhand. Her studio holds about 700 pounds of linens, sorted by color.

At Harmon, Johnson's installation includes, in addition to folded sheets, a drapelike object that's eerily reminiscent of Sam Gilliam's unstrectched canvases. Johnson has heard the comparison before, but not often, she says. Part painting, part sculpture, part landscape, part abstraction, her work has many layers. There's the feminist element of "women's work," as well as the element of storytelling. What can sheets tell us about their previous owners?

Johnson herself has boring tastes, she says; she sleeps on white cotton. But she has noticed something since moving to Washington. She can't quite explain it, but local thrift stores seem to have an overabundance of satin sheets - especially gold satin.