US artist inspired by unusual aspects of life

Mary A. Johnson, an American artist and lecturer at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Arts, is fascinated by such things and embraces them in her works.
US artist inspired by unusual aspects of life

US artist Mary Johnson works in her studio, located in Beijing’s Wangjing area.

It’s unlikely many people will get excited over the guts of a fish, sores on human skin or a half-eaten peach. But Mary A. Johnson, an American artist and lecturer at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, is fascinated by such things and embraces them in her works. 

In Johnson’s creations, food clearly plays a prominent role, as well as the tension between the visually seductive and repulsive, transience and decay.

“I would like to create a fluid experience of sensory dissonance,” she said.

Food and organic dyes made from it are a focus in her work as food can be both attractive and revolting.

“By using natural dyes in addition to digitally manipulated images, my art-making methods bridge the digital with the labor-intensive practices of craft,” she said.

The artist works with craft-dyeing techniques as well as digital photography to produce paintings, collages and installations.

“I begin my work by setting up still lives in my studio that I allow to decompose. These serve as the images in my collage and digital work,” she said. “Along with collage, I use various papers, synthetic materials and my organic dyes to create images and spaces in which it is difficult to determine what is what: Is that the guts of a fish, or the seeping sores of human skin, or the bitten inside of a peach? Is that paint or the slowly cooked juices of black rice, or wine, or blood?”

When asked whether there is a difference in the way Western and Chinese viewers see her art, Johnson said no, and suggested that human responses to given patterns tend to be similar. 

“Viewers are generally drawn to the unusual methods I use as well as the visually seductive combination of biological forms and colors,” she said.

Johnson creates her art in a studio, which is located in her apartment in Beijing’s trendy Wangjing area. Her fiance, her two cats — all of which she found in China — have also become part of the creative process as she has taken photos of her cats’ mouths or her fiance’s hand to include them as elements in her work.

Her Chinese intern, former student Luo Jingfan, helps Johnson with preparing materials for various projects in the studio. Johnson’s studio is a place where there are multiple works in progress at the same time, and a laboratory of sorts. It was through experimenting that she made a discovery that has aided her work.

“When working with new and non-traditional materials, experiments are a guaranteed part of the game,” she said, adding that was how she discovered that baijiu, a spirit usually distilled from sorghum, is an effective color stabilizer.

Johnson has also become interested in paper-making, a Chinese invention. She infuses the paper she makes with natural colors such as fragrant green matcha tea, red dragon fruit, indigo and black glutinous rice dye.

The American artist appreciates living in Beijing and witnessing its dynamism, and compared the city to a “living organism.”

“With all of these fairly recent changes, China possesses a deep cultural history. I encourage my students to dip conceptually and materially into this history when making their own work. It is refreshing and exciting to see contemporary Chinese artists creating work from a richly genuine place of experience, history and culture while speaking to the contemporary context they find themselves in,” Johnson said.

US artist inspired by unusual aspects of life

Johnson’s artworks utilize food and organic dyes made from it.

In fact, Johnson derives inspiration from her Chinese surroundings where materials for her art are concerned, be it shopping for rhinestones and other items on Taobao or strolling around the farmer’s market of her neighborhood and savoring the colors, textures and smells.

“Whether I find new fungi for a bizarre-looking still life, or mulberries for a purple dye in the summer, there is always something here for me,” she said.

“Conceptually speaking, I do find it interesting that traditionally, Eastern pictorial representation shares aspects of the contemporary theories of the Neo-Baroque. 

“Characters may appear in one image in multiple places, representing themselves at different times,” as opposed to traditional Western pictorial representation where one subject is depicted at one moment in time.

“As my work fits into the context of the Neo-Baroque, this aspect of traditional Chinese and Asian painting is very intriguing to me.”

What’s more, Johnson is attracted to traditional Chinese paper cuts, and the walls of her living room are decorated with whimsical colored paper cuts featuring the Chinese zodiac signs.

“Aesthetically, I am very drawn to the intricate and delicate nature of paper cuttings and Chinese ink paintings of botanicals. I am sure their lyrical and poetic lines and forms subconsciously affect my own work,” she said.

 When she isn’t creating art, Johnson has been teaching it to Chinese freshmen at CAFA, a leading institution for modern art education, since 2016. 

She came to China in 2014 and started out teaching art to elementary school students in Shanghai, and then relocated to Beijing where she has been teaching college-level art, which was her specialty in her native United States.

Johnson enjoys taking her CAFA students on field trips in Beijing such as to the National Museum, Guanfu Museum or the 798 Art District. 

“As an educator, I make an effort to blur the lines between the studio and the field, and one of the best ways to do this is taking trips together outside of campus to see not only exhibitions and museums, but life,” she said.

In that way she hopes that her students will realize that art is not created in a vacuum, but in conjunction with everyday life.

Although the language and cultural barriers she has encountered in China can be difficult to surmount, Johnson finds her life in China overall to be very rewarding and even liberating.

“Not being fully familiar with the accepted professional practices of artists in China can at first glance seem limiting, and they can be,” she said. “However it also offers me the advantage that many foreign nationals from all over the world find when they leave their home country — it’s freeing! When you don’t know the constraints, you’re more likely to take risks that pay off.”

One highlight for Johnson in China was having her work included in Art Nova’s 100 exhibition of emerging artists in China at the Agricultural Exhibition Center in 2016 and speak at the opening ceremony.

Now, Johnson is looking forward to more time and more creative projects in China as she is busy preparing works that combine her paper-based and organic methods with digital projections and imagery.

“I am excited to be a part of the busy cultural center that is Beijing and I would like to continue to participate in the dialogues happening here and continue to share my work in this amazing city and in China,” the artist added.

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