Sutton Gallery is pleased to present System Preferences, an exhibition of new works by Helen Johnson. Engaging with an expanded concept of painting, Johnson’s work explores the possibilities of this medium in a contemporary context, all the while making subtle use of imagery relating to present political attitudes and influences in Australia.
‘System Preferences refers most obviously to the control panel of the perniciously ubiquitous Macintosh, though it also refers to the systems of painting, and how they might be rethought in a contemporary context – and, on a broader level, how we might like things to be run [or] what systems we would like to see in place’. i
The works in this show continue Johnson’s investigation into, or questioning of, the role painting can play in contemporary society. She offers a flexible, engaged way of making that understands art as a means of communication to incite discussion. Displaying an obvious knowledge of the historical narratives of painting, Johnson moves beyond a restrictive, purely materialist notion of what painting can mean. Instead, as is fitting for our time of post-medium-specificity, she chooses to engage with other, more outward-looking mechanisms. For Johnson, painting is not a problem that needs to be solved; rather, it is free to introduce tangential thoughts and ideas.
As the genesis for System Preferences, Johnson has applied a reductive approach to traditional materials, using stretched linen primed with rabbit skin glue, drapes and pared back watercolour magazine illustrations as her media basis. Though the grounds of the paintings are prepared with dye, the actual painted mark reveals a ghost-like presence.
There is also an intriguing use of political imagery in these new paintings, which depict porcine mining barons,
cardboard voting booths and ministerial sleights of hand, among other things. Part of Johnson’s approach to
System Preferences is to see what happens when political figures – including Julia Gillard and Clive Palmer –
are painted without specific, polemical intent. Ducking under a propagandist aesthetic, Johnson’s paintings do
not claim to serve as a political messenger for didactic statements, instead reflecting a convergence of subject,
materiality and stigma.ii
Johnson has held numerous solo shows, including most recently Universal Remote, Y3K Gallery, Melbourne
2011; An Effort of Memory, Center for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne 2010; and On the Make, Utopian Slumps, Melbourne 2009. She has also contributed to a number of important group exhibitions within Australia and internationally: Subtext, UnProjects at Westpace, Melbourne 2011; Stick It! Collage in Australia Art, The Ian Potter Center: NGV Australia, Melbourne 2010; The Independence Project, curated by Alexie Glass, Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur 2007; Octopus 6, curated by Zara Stanhope, Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne 2006; and New 06, curated by Juliana Engberg, Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne, 2006. In 2007 she was one of only eleven international emerging artists featured in Present Future, a curated section of Artissima, Turin, Italy. Johnson has undertaken studio residencies in Norway and Germany. This year she received a London Studio Residency by the Australia Council for the Arts. Her work is held in public collections including Artbank and the National Gallery of Victoria; as well as private collections in Australia, China, Israel, Norway and USA.
i Helen Johnson, artist statement, 2011
ii Helen Johnson, artist statement, 2011Artist’s profile