Artist Ian Johnson examines humanity’s standoff with the natural world
An exhibition in Mexico City by an artist who moved to Mexico from England nine years ago reflects his interest in the human footprint on the environment and its impact on the natural landscape.
“The Weight of Gravity” is the first solo exhibition in Mexico by Ian Johnson, who lives and works in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, and is part of his exploration of the impact of humanity on nature.
Johnson’s work began to shift more fully in that direction, he says, after a chance encounter in the Sierra Nevada of northern Colombia.
A native Kogi man and child approached him, offering him an unusual seed from a regional plant. Johnson is not sure how the man knew, but he had been collecting seeds for several weeks as he traveled through Colombia and incorporated them into his artwork.
The language barrier prevented them from fully communicating, but this interaction set him on the path to a more in-depth examination of Kogi culture, which exposed him to a community of people deeply attached to Mother Earth, of which the Kogi believe themselves to be the protector.
“They kept their privacy and avoided all contact with the outside world except a minimum until fairly recently,” Johnson said. “In the early 1990s, they wanted to get their message across to the world. “
According to Johnson, the Kogi see themselves as the guardians of the world.
“In the way of life that they live and in their connection with nature, the harmony that they seek, they have seen over the decades a change in the environment,” he says. “Glaciers are melting, rivers aren’t flowing as fast, lakes aren’t filling – and they can see it’s out of balance.”
Already, much of Johnson’s work had dealt with the impact humans have on the environment, either through the blatant impact of industrialization or through the more subtle changes and shifts in the natural world. But that chance encounter crystallized much of his attention, he says.
“I really think from that point on, a lot of it had to do with the momentum my work was going to take. It’s still kind of focused on nature and the landscape, and I think that really helped define it for me at this point. “
Johnson works with industrial materials like steel and spray paint alongside more natural mediums like clay and objects found in nature. He divided the show into three sections, each representing a different element of the standoff between humans and nature.
The focal point of the first section of the exhibition, Calendar, is a representative piece of the passage of time and of our conception of it. It consists of 12 birch wood panels inlaid with colored bronze bars. Each panel is mounted in fabricated steel frames.
The 12 panels represent months, and the fine bronze threads that connect them days.
“It comes from the way we record data,” he says, “whether it’s measuring sticks along the banks of rivers to measure the water level. [or] the way we plot things and graph things. They are obviously abstract, but I like the element; it’s a kind of abstract record of data.
In the second section, Johnson uses a combination of natural and industrial materials to focus on built nature. One of the most striking pieces is Landscape painting, which uses acrylic vinyl and enamel spray paint on stainless steel panels to recreate a leafy canvas of greens, whites and blacks.
“This work was born in front of the jungle. I was in Peru, ”he says,“… and I had this experience and this opportunity to stand by the river, gazing at the jungle canopy in front of me. It’s incredibly awesome, and I was aware that this experience was that the jungle almost acted like a mirror; it reflected all of my own fears and insecurities about going into it.
“The jungle itself was fine, it was doing its thing. I was the stranger in that environment, and it was very interesting to identify with him in that sense.
The third section deals with water as the emotional and physical force of nature. The main room, Water elements, is a nine-panel mural with attributes similar to The calendar, also on the topic of data measurement.
The piece titled Geothermal – created from glazed ceramic and steel on a steel base – gives an impression of erosion and transformation over millennia, as water erodes a rock wall through the centuries.
Throughout the exhibition, pieces of sculpture are mixed together, including many leaf sculptures that were the source of the collection’s title.
“What I did was take some of the leaves that I worked with, and I went there every couple of days, soaking them in liquid clay and letting them dry; then I would go back there to soak them again, ”he explains.
“Over the course of about two months, these leaves were dipped in and out of the liquid clay bucket, and they built up a surface around them,” he says. “That’s really where the title comes from because I like the idea that it was really the weight of gravity forming on those sheets. It would transform the shape slightly each time they were soaked, and it is through this that they took their forms.
Johnson studied at Jacob Kramer College of Art in Leeds, England (now Leeds Arts University) and Goldsmiths College, University of London. In 1991, he obtained a Bachelor of Fine Arts with honors and received the Erasmus grant from the European Union to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montpellier, France. He was also the recipient of a Young Artist Working Fellowship with the Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Italy.
In 1993, he traveled for the first time to Latin America with four other artists and musicians.
“We were there as a creative group, to see how people used creativity in the programs or dealt directly with the children. It opened my eyes to Latin America, and it was my first encounter with her. I think from then on I had this fascination and a deep admiration for it.
Johnson met his wife in Oaxaca and they decided to return to Mexico with their two-year-old daughter in 2012 for a travel adventure before she started school. Their plans for a one-year stay turned into nine, and now Johnson is working out of his studio in San Miguel de Allende and exhibiting both in Mexico and abroad.
His hope for this latest exhibition in Mexico City is that the artwork will have enough impact on the viewer for them to stop and really think about what they are looking at and how they relate to the space that looms there. ‘surrounded.
“May be [they will] consider the relationships between works, and [it will] creating that moment of reflection because I think that’s the point where art can actually come out to have an impact on people, ”he says.
• The “weight of gravity” is currently on display at Galerie 557 at Centro Cultural Pedregal in Mexico City until November 19. Viewing hours are 9 am to 7 pm Monday to Friday; from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday; and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday.
Lydia Carey regularly contributes to Mexico Daily News.