Chris Johanson and Johanna Jackson, House of Escaping Forms

Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, through January 30, 2016

By Jacob Feige

For their exhibition at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, Johanna Jackson and Chris Johanson have brought a variety of household furnishings, textiles, and wall decorations into the gallery space, all of their own making. In contrast to objects made for the gallery or museum, and therefore for an art collector, the work in House of Escaping Forms presents a cohesive, if idiosyncratic, interior space borne of a desire by the two artists, who are husband and wife, to make their creative output and living space one and the same. Peppered throughout the exhibition are references to the volatility of the outside world—explosions, a ship in the doldrums—distinguished from the comfort of a creative inner life, and ultimately point to the hazard of art leaving the studio for less personal contexts, like the art gallery.

Granted, much of this installation was made on-site for the show at Fleisher/Ollman, and most of it is for sale. Ceramic dishware, furniture, and even a very wonky set of silverware are functional, and all are available for purchase. Cast in the worst light, the installation could be seen as an elaborate pop-up craft fair, where a premium can be paid for the charm of hand-made sweaters and cups, touched by the artists’ hands. But to get the most from the exhibition, one must treat it as an immersive installation in the lineage of the gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art—where a variety of media and architecture merge. Fabled narratives often surround such ambitious projects, most prominently Kurt Schwitter’s Dadaist assemblage Merzbau that sprawled through the rooms of his house in Hanover from 1923 to 1937 before an Allied bombing raid destroyed the work, along with the house, in 1943. For Jackson and Johanson, this narrative is relatively simple: their apartment in Los Angeles is on a hill, accessible by a long outdoor staircase, making it a chore to move heavy furniture in. They consequently chose to build their own furniture from scrap wood, and their adventure in personal environment building commenced.

Jackson and Johanson came of age as artists in the West Coast art scene of the 90s and 2000s, where informal gestures, humor, and casual approaches to material construction were held in high regard. One of my favorite Johanson pieces is Excellent Workshop, a 2002 painting on paper showing stiff figures trotting around in colored bodysuits over the text “this workshop is highly regarded as one of the best workshops.” As in his best work, irony and cynical humor manage to coexist with comic-inspired abstraction and a genuine love for whimsical narrative. In both artists’ practices, these two-dimensional works have often been integrated into larger, sculptural installations.

The installation at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery centers around two raised platforms, suggesting a living room and bedroom without proper walls. Woven textiles and hand painted elements occupy the spaces, forming a syntagm of domestic elements: couches, chairs, a bed, a hand-painted windowsill, and of course, pictures on the walls. A weaving drapes over the couch, and a latch-hook rug sits on the floor, each with handmade charm. Like all fiber elements in the exhibition, they are representational, suggesting the phases of the moon and perhaps a field at sunset, respectively. Elsewhere, a beautiful sweater with a ship depicted on the back dangles from a sculpted hanger whose arms stretch wide open in an agape welcoming gesture –a longing for adventure and domestic comfort combined in a single object. Other fabric works, including a hilariously straightforward depiction of a chunky houseplant on a mattress, create productive tension between image and function, while others–sheets clumsily sewn together and dyed blue–are an insubstantial riff on Arte Povera, too close to material abstraction to complement the bulk of the installation. But that is a minor point. The best moments of the exhibition are two-dimensional works, happened upon by the viewer as one might find a print hidden in the hallway of an old house. In Untitled, 2015, a menagerie of perfume bottles also includes a hotdog and maybe even a cheap bottle of lemon juice. A series of paintings, each titled How’d I Even Get Here, veers towards abstraction in chaotic scenes merging interior and exterior space: a moon, a porch, and curtain ties all sitting in the same shallow space.

Subtle details and easily missed gems abound in House of Escaping Forms, too numerous to list, and viewers who devote time to this exhibition will be rewarded with their discovery. The quiet linchpin of the exhibition is an untitled wall-work depicting the artists’ apartment building in Los Angeles, installed prominently beside the gallery entrance so as not to be missed. The building itself is a wobbly piece of blue ceramic laid over a landscape painting on wood, reminiscent of an element in a Red Grooms cityscape, who along with Claes Oldenberg first made sloppy pop depictions of everyday objects. The interior of the apartment can be seen through the windows of the building, and the artists themselves are sitting just outside, guitar and knitting needles in hand, and a coffee cup on the table. A text bubble over Jackson’s head reads “in my castle/ my fucked up/ imperfect + beautiful castle/ how does it stand/ with the problems and/ imperfections of our/ times or my mind.” From this statement and the exhibition broadly, it is clear that making the work, and the inner creative life borne of that work, is the easy part, or at least it is made to look easy. The difficulty lies in defining the relationship between this inner sanctum and the outer world–a dilemma that nearly all artists, save those in warzones, likely face to some degree. For all its ostensible focus on domesticity and creative production for the artist’s sake, the tooth of the exhibition is in this tension between inner and outer life. That drama unfolds effectively in the gallery space, which is a departure from the home studio, but not quite reality either.


Jacob Feige is an artist and Assistant Professor of Art at Stockton University. His solo exhibition Cutaways was at Rule Gallery, Denver through December, 2015. The Phaidon Press anthology Painting Abstraction includes a section on his work.