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Ready-Made Dreams: An Interview with Sue Johnson

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill.

(Not So) Still Life, on view in Glyndor Gallery through July 04, 2016, presents novel ways that contemporary artists are transforming the still life genre to engage with current culture. Artist Sue Johnson mines the history of collections and collectors in her wide-ranging projects. At Wave Hill, the artist’s Banqueting Table takes center stage in what was once the dining room of Glyndor House, originally the home of the Perkins family, the last private owners of the Wave Hill estate. Using the iconography of consumerism and the traditions of vanitas and trompe l’oeil, Sue Johnson sets the table with a feast that epitomizes the 1950s or ’60s. Some elements, silkscreened on vinyl, look dimensional, while others are a mix of found objects and ceramics that the artist constructed for the display. Set in Glyndor House, the work juxtaposes the ideal of the single-family, suburban, home with an earlier, more privileged way of life suggested by Glyndor’s elegant Georgian Revival interior. 

Danni Shen: American Dreamscape, also entitled Ready-Made Dream, is a large, immersive installation that simulates the interior typical of the home of a nuclear family living in the suburbs. What is it about the post-World War II consumer era, and American suburbia, that interests you? And why is this an important time in the historical continuum in regards to your work?

Sue Johnson: American Dreamscape is the umbrella project within which Ready-Made Dream and The Banqueting Table are situated. Ready-Made Dream is the larger-than-life trompe l’oeil re-creation of a faux-suburban home based on dollhouses and real homes of the mid-20th century. This installation project creates room settings that are akin to theatrical backdrops—two-dimensional illusions that have been printed on vinyl by a commercial billboard company and hung like contemporary tapestries. The rooms feature modern conveniences and commodities and décor in a fictional re-creation of what an ideal “dream house” might have looked like in the 1950s or ’60s. The Banqueting Table is another expression of this same “dream,”, and employs trompe l’oeil techniques to create a setting that is at once very recognizable, yet also an illusion.

DS: When did you start American Dreamscape, and how do you see the work in relation to the still life genre?

SJ: The genesis for American Dreamscape naturally grew from my interest in objects—real, imagined, curious, improbable, historical and, with this current project, of contemporary times, or certainly the recent past. Since the early 1990s, my work has been grounded in the genre of the still life, using the language of science while focusing on collections and collectors, and on the role that artists have historically played in the creation of new knowledge. By this I mean that artists have pictured things of the world that in many cases had never been pictured before—rare objects, new species, and so forth. In the mid-1990s, I began work on The Alternative Encyclopedia project, which simulated the look and feel of a small natural history museum, an idiosyncratic contemporary cabinet of curiosities that was situated at the intersection of science and popular culture. In the intervening years, I worked with museums and collections to create site-specific installations that drew on a particular collection. At the Museum of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, for instance, I looked at early American science; at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. I explored a ‘lost’ collection of objects that was amassed by General Pitt Rivers and, over time, was dispersed to mostly unknown locations. The Alternative Encyclopedia embraced the history of collections, focusing on time periods up through the late 19th century, when the culture of collecting still embraced the individual collector, someone seeking to establish meaning through the juxtaposition of objects, scientific or otherwise. Sue-Johnson-2

DS: The work seems to bring about a sense of nostalgia for visitors, where they return to a past way of living. The McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, for example, are recognizable to a certain generation.

SJ: The centerpiece is titled King of Happiness Hill and harkens back to elaborate banquet settings that featured decorative centerpieces make from both edible and inedible elements. It is a conglomerate tower made up of fast-food chain restaurant give-a-away toys. As you said, many may recognize the Happy Meal toys from McDonalds—thus the title, King of Happiness Hill—alongside assorted fake food and anthropomorphic toys of transformative food items. Holding forth atop the mountain is a Mr. Peanut peanut-butter maker, complete with his top hat and cane.


DS: The table pieces look to make a palatable feast upon entering the gallery, yet on closer inspection they’re really quite creepy embodiments of food and industry, though still very aesthetically pleasing and even charming…The textile paper with the aerial view of a suburban sprawl as well….

SJ: With The Incredible Edibles ceramic pieces, nature is presented as innocent in a world of consumption, a world in which we humans rarely know the exact origin of the food we eat, and certainly don’t expect our meals to stare back at us from the plate. A plate of pork and beans, for example, literally has a miniature pig amongst the beans, and readymade convenience meals, set up on TV-dinner trays, offer up lamb stew and venison with gravy. In both cases, the meal is still in whole-animal form, taken from life casts of plastic toys and ceramic figurines. While they comment on the ubiquitous, anthropomorphic ‘spokes-animal’ who is happy to be consumed, so often pictured on cereal boxes, for example, these works also suggest a darker, more covert world of genetically modified foods and human attempts to create an artificial, “more humanized” nature. For these pieces, I was first inspired by the rich history of functional and decorative ceramics, such as platters by Renaissance ceramicist Bernard Palissy (1510-1590), who presented a living tableau of wild nature, in relief, on the dinner plate. In many cultures and across time, there have been a wide array of examples of soup tureens, tea and coffee pots and other serving pieces made in the shape of vegetables and animals.

As for the vinyl-printed tablecloth, it resembles the feel of an informal plastic picnic tablecloth inserted into a more formal, indoor dining experience. The serving pieces, silverware, foodstuffs and plate of food are three-dimensional and illusionary, and purposely disrupt the equilibrium of recognizing what is real and what is a duplicate. The design that circles the edge of the tablecloth is one that I created of an overhead view of a suburban neighborhood, which was painted and then repeated over and over again.


DS: Have you always worked in ceramics?

SJ: In a way, I grew up with ceramics. My mother was a ceramic artist, and so as a child I had some experience in ceramics. But I never worked in the medium until 2007, when I did a residency at the John Michael Kohler Art Center’s Arts/Industry Program in Sheboygan, WI. It was at Kohler that I learned how to make plaster molds and create the slip-cast, vitreous-china ceramic sculptures that are the main feature of The Banqueting Table, objects that feel contemporary and also nostalgic (to my childhood). These are the ceramic objects that are featured in that work. It was at this time that I wanted to move the subject matter of my work into my own time, rather than historical time; looking back to my childhood in the mid-20th century seemed at good place to begin.

As with the Alternate Encyclopedia, for which I researched the documents of early science and exploration, I now immersed myself in artifacts of mid-century, which I had already been unwittingly collecting, given my interests in popular science. I had done several projects that investigated domestic objects, most particularly Moore Adventures in Wonderland for the Rosenbach Museum of Library in Philadelphia, which explored the objects collected by poet Marianne Moore overlapping with Lewis Carroll’s Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. I made a model for this exhibition, which connected with my interest in the miniature, which led me to the dollhouse, which in turn brought me to manufactured dollhouses of the 20th century—which as it turns out were highly accurate representations of post-World War II suburban, single-family homes. These dollhouses functioned as dream spaces, imagination spaces filled with objects—spaces that mirrored the growing consumer culture and the commodification of the American dream, and the “dream home.”

DS: Why dreamscape?

SJ: Dreamscape, of course, refers to the American dream, and also signals landscape. I wanted to create a world of objects that could be experienced as if in a vast landscape, a consumer landscape filled with objects of desire. If a landscape is like a dream, that also means it is not real. It’s an illusion, intangible, out of reach—like the American dream in so many ways—an illusory, yet still culturally resonant, dea, a construct. Dreamscape also goes back to my interest in Alice in Wonderland, a parallel universe, down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass.


Pictured above, from the top:
— Sue Johnson, The Banqueting Table (detail), 2007-2016, print on vinyl with objects construction, slip-cast vitreous china and found object construction, 4” x 8” x 30”. Courtesy of the artist.
— Sue Johnson, The Banqueting Table (detail), 2007-2016, print on vinyl with objects construction, slip-cast vitreous china and found object construction, 4” x 8” x 30”. Courtesy of the artist.
— Sue Johnson, The Banqueting Table: Suburbia (table cloth detail), 2007-16. Courtesy of artist.
— The pair of images is, on the left, is an internet image of an Italian centerpiece dating from the 17th century and made of sugar. On the left is Sue Johnson’s King of Happiness Hill, found object construction, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

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