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Shifting Environments, Adapting Bodies: An Interview with Tamara Johnson

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill. She reports here on a dialogue between Curator of Visual Arts Gabriel de Guzman and Sunroom artist Tamara Johnson.

Glyndor Gallery Sunroom Project Space artist Tamara Johnson transforms everyday objects and structures, turning seemingly common or shared knowledge on its head; the familiar becomes unfamiliar, yet the unfamiliar is experienced only through perceptions of the familiar. During her June 16 “Meet-the-Artist” talk, Johnson discussed how humor, conflict, the built environment and shifts in geography and landscape come together to inform her working process. While her installation, Interior Complex, directly references the balusters on Wave Hill’s Lower Lawn, in the gallery space the forms have been warped, stretched, broken and turned upside down. As the architecture loses  its intended function of delineating space as property, it comes alive—and must adapt to its new environment. Tamara Johnson’s work, humorous in nature, questions preconceived notions of private and public, common and uncommon, individual and collective, shifts that are at once material and conceptual, as well as physical and psychological.


Gabriel de Guzman: Why did you choose these architectural elements as the subject for your project?

Tamara Johnson: This form—the balustrade—is something that’s very common, and has a readability that people are very familiar with. I think then, you can talk to a wide variety of people or demographics, because there’s something common there that we all understand. It can grab your attention because you know it as something you experience in your everyday, or something which is particular to a certain place. From there, I can transform it, and work with it. The goal is to change the conversations about feelings or perceptions around an object and its function.

GdG: Can you talk about some of the alterations that you made? These are obviously not exact replicas.

TJ: What I really wanted to do in this space, was to have this moment of a baluster coming into an environment. The title of the piece is “Interior Complex” because I was thinking about what happens when this structure goes somewhere else and doesn’t have a job of protecting certain outside areas or spaces. So another reason I was drawn to this space was this outdoor porch area. I really wanted balustrades outside doing their job, and then having this moment of collision, coming inside, freaking out, not knowing what to do because its function changes, and then having to adapt. Does it evolve its shape or mutate? Or does it just deflate? Does it try to re-grow? In my mind I had different visuals of what would happen if these came inside, fell apart, and tried to figure out what to do in this new environment. Which is how I feel every time I move to a new city. So it’s a little bit of a self-portrait. It’s about shifting from the familiar to unfamiliar, back to familiar again, in relation to the landscape, geography, moving and that feeling of strangeness.Artist-Talk

GdG: And what about the piece wedged over there by the door.

TJ: That was actually the last one I made. I made all the pieces, and then had a dream that one just smashed up against the wall. So I thought I have to make it! It’s maybe the most important one.

GdG: A lot of your work seems to address the relationship between body and space. I know you’re a sculptor so you’re thinking three-dimensionally, but can you talk about gestures in your work and expressions of the body?

TJ: When I was at the Rhode Island School of Design, I was investigating ideas of sculpture, performance and public sphere, and how to activate the objects I was making to give them more of an energy; how I could charge them with the physicality of the body, or imbue them with the awkwardness of the body, or fatigue, or even silliness of interacting with them over and over again. I think that’s a life-long quest. I’m also always thinking about choreography, and how the body relates to different objects. How can I position these things so someone might think they are funny, sad, pathetic, and so on.  

GdG: In this piece and in your previous work, the viewer is often attracted through humor. Tell us about that aspect of your work. Is that intentional, or important?

TJ: Yes, it is. For me, it’s important to have this one little ingredient of humor because conflict breeds humor, at least in my mind. There’s a vulnerability to that—the idea of being a stand-up comedian is so terrifying to me, being up there and telling jokes in front of people. I think with humor you can talk about anything, though. You can talk about really sad, tragic and uncomfortable topics under the guise of understood humor that people can relate to. I don’t know if humor is at the very forefront, but it’s definitely there.

GdG: You also talk about your interest in ideas of public and private space, as well as culture and landscape, exterior and interior. Tell us more about how you engage in those ideas.

TJ: I didn’t realize landscape or geography was so important to me until after graduate school. I moved from Texas to Rhode Island, and then came to New York after graduate school. I was so homesick, and had a really hard time. The experience of having these huge shifts in geography—being in a big state and then moving to this state where I can drive across the whole place in 30 minutes—was something I started really thinking about. In a way, I’m always trying to create conflict. I think if I was back in Texas, I wouldn’t be making sad balusters. I think the geography and landscape of where I put myself is sometimes tough. I think I do it unintentionally, but I try to figure it out and make it familiar, or work for me. With the public and the private, the audience is different. I like the challenge of a much broader audience.

GdG: A visitor at your Meet-the-Artist commented that she noticed a kind of suburban feel to your work—houses might have this balustrade on their front stoop, or your piece at Socrates Sculpture Park with the pool, or the hose pieces at the Rooster Gallery. Do you have any thoughts or comments on suburbia or class, or middle-class lifestyles?

TJ: Yeah, definitely. It’s informed by my geographical history, how I grew up, and what I was used to, compared to living in New York. For me, the pool and the hoses, were these bizarre objects that seemed almost fantastical. In Texas, no matter how rich or poor you are, you have some version of a pool because it’s so hot. So in Texas pools have a certain context. In New York, it’s not something you have a lot of access to, at least on an everyday basis. I’m drawn to these under-looked, seemingly basic aspects of my landscapes. Now I’m in New York, and the wrought-iron fencing is so strange to me. What is that thing that delineates this as a front yard? For me, bridging the gap between those different economies and geographies is interesting.

Tamara Johnson’s installation in the Sunroom Project Space will be up through July 19.

Pictured above: Tamara Johnson, An Interior Complex (detail), 2015. Gypsum plaster, epoxy putty, wood, foam, latex and acrylic paint. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Parsley Steinweiss. The second photo was taken at her Meet-the-Artist on June 14, 2015.


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