Helen Johnson—Ends

Helen Johnson’s exhibition Ends at New York’s New Museum, consists of six paintings presented in three pairs: Self painting and Death painting (knowledge transfer ghoul); Grandmother painting and Mother painting; Child painting and Faith painting (all 2017). These three pairs establish an emphasis upon duality that is carried throughout a hang, which, like many of Johnson’s exhibitions, presents both the front and back of each canvas. Likewise, binaries are evoked time and time again in the content of each work: mothers and their children; men and women; beaches and forests; sugar and jam; friends and foes; fire and water; analyst and analysand; beginnings and ends. Ends is an exhibition about family and history, Lacanian psychoanalysis and politics, paintings and their creators. Its about binaries meeting each other upon the plane of the painting, depicted through multiple layers of imagery that merge into each other and dissolve within the works that they constitute. Ends is a tumult of references and allusions. 

Patterns of stripes and thick black or white cartoon outlines mix with variations of a palette of marled greys, blues and greens, creating an unfolding chaos of layered imagery and text depicting appropriated figures in various kinds of social interaction. These layers of imagery are collapsed into each other through multiple coats of paint in different dilutions and different methods of application but also through the retrieval of submerged layers by removing pieces of painted-over tape that reveal underneath surfaces. Different methods of mark marking or image creation are not confined to the depiction of individual components. Instead, different imagery within each painting is often made up of a complicated mix of lines of colour or texture with negative and positive space. For instance, in Grandmother painting a thick band of the scene’s grey grassed landscape acts as a gag over the central male figure’s mouth as well as a blindfold upon his paired female figure, yoking the characters together while putting them in direct conversation with the multiple layers of the work.

In order to fully read the paintings, the audience is required to circumnavigate each work given that they are objects in space rather than two-dimensional paintings upon a wall. The weight of each painting’s front facing surface is made visible on the back through the ridges and outlines of early layers, which often help in differentiating those layers, when viewing the work from the front. In turn, additional fragments of text and image cause the viewer to reassess their previous conception of the front of the painting, disrupting and complimenting previous readings. On the back of Self painting it states:

Whether it could more accurately
be said that the completion of a
painting marks the beginning of its 
life in the world, or the end of its life
in the studio.

In this instance, an explanation of the title of the exhibition is offered, suggesting a life and death binary, of passing through the studio into the world. The work is given a history and provenance of its own. This is reiterated upon the other paintings with recognition of additional assistance (Nell Pearson and Georgina Sambell are cited on all, and Una Clemens on Grandmother painting) as well as an acknowledgement of the geography of their creation ‘…on Wurundjeri Country in Eltham in 2017’. Although not unusual for an artist to do this kind of cataloguing, the explicit anchoring of the project in a time and space within the space of the gallery itself feels important. This is particularly the case when many of the signatures and dates of appropriated works appear on the front of the canvas — ‘F.B’ the initials of Fred Booty in the left-hand corner of Self painting,(1) ‘ST. KILDA VICTORIA AUSTRALIA E.M.C 1980’ mimicking the scrawled signature of Johnson’s grandmother Edna Coleman on Grandmother painting,(2) or, ‘HAL GYE — 09’ representing the 1909 Hal Gye illustration depicted within Child painting.(3) These inscriptions gesture toward moments in time that are not concrete but reflect Johnson’s interest in shifting understandings of histories with multiple authors and perspectives. It’s an attempt to undermine a monolithic or linear understanding of history, claiming that our understanding of history is fragmented and interpreted differently depending on the context of that narrative’s consumption. The works are caught between these historical moments, while the exhibition speaks of these moments from a position of uncertainty. 

Johnson also often undermines her own voice as artist. For instance, on the back of Mother painting, there is the tongue-in-cheek inclusion of a drawn ‘PSYCHOANALYSIS GIFT CERTIFICATE’ that potentially mocks the process of psychoanalysis (which Johnson herself participates in)(4), while on the bottom of Grandmother painting the following cynical text confesses:

 I’ve hit on it at last! That’s a style of painting much better suited to
 this market than the sort of thing I used to do.

As mentioned above, Grandmother painting includes an appropriation of a work of the St. Kilda foreshore created by Johnson’s grandmother Edna Coleman. After visiting her family in Australia, Coleman returned to her home in the United Kingdom and created the painting from memory. Johnson says she has always been drawn to this picture not only as a family artefact but because it conflates different memories of place—the beach of St. Kilda merges with depictions of ferns and lyrebirds that her grandmother most likely encountered in the Dandenong Ranges.(5)  The ‘blurriness’ of memory creates a porousness between these two distinct sites and Johnson continues to pile on this preexisting layer with contexts and figures, associations and references. Johnson’s grandmother’s image becomes a layer of Grandmother painting, a vanishing mediator for the finished work, only partly recognisable. That particular family story vanishes, emerging and submerging into the field of  the work and its layers of cartoons and figures. While each layer undermines a reading of the next, it also gives something to it, a new life to each appropriated image outside the studio and even beyond its original frame. These are residues of the past intermingling with the future.

The names of the paintings as well as their grouping in pairs establish familial relationships between each, so that the works feel linked to Johnson and also to each other in this new life at the New Museum. The imagery and histories from her family (and elsewhere) are used as a departure point before being complicated by the introduction of psychoanalytic tropes. The back of Self painting goes on:

August 1, 2017
I had a beautiful body – why am I so 
mean to it?

August 3, 2017
To restore something in your mother

August 8, 2017 
I can just make a painting, I have to 
set images in relation to one another, 
and then it becomes a matter of 
solving the problem you have created 
That’s how the paintings evolve.
E: How you evolve. 

August 10, 2017
E: You feel marked in some way, sentenced.
This proceeds what happened when you 
were 18. The work you are doing here is 
to lift that sentence. 

To try to. 

August 15, 2017
E: Planting these seeds, making these 
preparations in order to deal with 
your anxiety. 

On one level, hoodwinking myself.
E: Hoodwinking and not hoodwinking yourself. 

At first these words appear to be some kind of confessional diary entry. However, the introduction of a second voice mid-way through the text represented as ‘E’ alludes to a conversation of a subject with their analyst. Although it’s seductive to think of ‘E’ as Edna Colman (E.M.C) arriving as gentle authoritative voice, the former conclusion might be more likely as the conversation oscillates around the retrieval of memory and the relationship with one’s own emotions. 

Conversation plays an important role within a suite of images that includes the appropriation of postcards primarily used from the 19th until the early 20th century as an informal mode of communication between families and acquaintances.  These postcards and their illustrations were often darkly satirical as exemplified by the one used in Self painting by Fred Booty, which includes the following inscription:

Mary poisoned Mother's tea,
Mother died in agony;
Father was extremely vexed
Mary child, what next, what next!

This is a classic example of popular English folk quatrains told and retold with the interchangeable character ‘Johnny’ as opposed to ‘Mary’. It illustrates the misogyny of its era (Mary’s father yells ‘Hooray’ above the alternate sentiment of ‘Father was extremely vexed’) and comically dives into the common psychoanalytical grounds of matricide. The postcard, as a site for communication, gestures to a conversation that now takes places between additional coalescing and converging figures within each work. In Death painting (knowledge transfer ghoul) three central figures participate in a sexual act within a plane of black and white stripes while formally dressed figures look on in witness and a cavorting collection of postcard comic figures melee upon the surface. While there is not one particular component of the work that evokes judgement or depravity there is a sense that figures within the painting are witness to what they might think is a suspect act.

Although there are various politics embedded within the exhibition, the work that contains the strongest agenda is Mother painting. On its back there are two other important inscriptions in addition to the previously mentioned ‘PSYCHOANALYSIS GIFT CERTIFICATE’: a dedication of the work to Kenneth Budd and a mural of his that depicted the Welsh Chartist uprising (appropriated on the work’s front face); and, a small star diagram featuring a series of connected words, ‘mother—son, fire—water, populace—state, capital—labour, nightmare—dream’. This series of paired words in proximity to the certificate calls forth the concept of the dyad as bound units of two. Johnson speaks of her participation in Lacanian psychoanalysis and how this is imparted within her practice, including her collection of references that are loaded into painting. The diagram acts as a key for the painting, which includes within the layers two sleeping figures wearing hats with the words ‘LABOUR’ and ‘CAPITAL’. They are surrounded by dreamlike clouds merging with nightmarish smoke generated by the muskets of the Chartist rebellion in Newport against a punitive authority. Mother painting is perhaps one of the more intense and difficult to decipher collections of imagery in Ends and includes an appropriation of another unattributed postcard from the State Library of Victoria.(6) This image depicts a son ransacking the kitchen stores of his mother (depicted within the work in a portrait upon the wall) who bares witness to his gluttony; jam smeared across his nose the son looks like a fool with his tongue hanging out. Below the cartoon reads, ‘IF THOSE LIPS COULD ONLY SPEAK’ and is about transgressions and acts of mischief against our kin that mirror the broader transgressions of society where men are pitted against men. In Johnson’s painting, the figure of the son merges into figures upon the bed who merge into figures fighting in the Newport streets who are all simultaneously engulfed in flames conjured from components of each layer creating a swirling brawl of wrongdoing, which is lastly and finally quenched by a big splash of water in the bottom right hand corner.

With works so rich in reference it is effortless to project multiple connections and conclusions. The ‘Eureka!’ of Grandmother painting might have previously been read as cynical, but when read alongside Mother painting, it might be considered to support an agenda of ‘the worker’ (the Eureka Stockade as another famous site of labour rebellion). Like the postcards, both these works suggest the migration and movements of people within the British empire: in Grandmother painting with the travel of Johnson’s grandmother and her conveyed memories; and, in Mother painting through the observance of those convicted in the Chartist Rebellion, their commuted death sentences in exchange for transportation for life. Perhaps they found their way to a new battle on the fields of the Victorian gold rush? 

Just as the water becomes some kind of concluding force within Mother painting, there is a definitive sense of an end to the comically moralising judgemental gaze often expressed in each work thanks in significant part to those postcards. The exhibition’s concluding Faith painting announces, ‘Evil be to him who evil thinketh’ underneath an image of a man lustfully looking at a sculpture of a naked woman while his wife looks on in shock or jealously, grabbing his arm to lead him away. This image intermingles with another of a naked woman, presumably some kind of ‘Eve’ figure, who is wrapped up by a snake giving her an apple. A mostly indecipherable naked man in a top hat looks on and clenches his fist. Faith painting includes the large face a woman (most likely Johnson) surrounded with four comic thought bubbles that include the text, ‘agnostic ?’, ‘Humanist?’, ‘other ?’ and ‘atheist?’ respectfully. A series of conundrums that is optimistically given a conclusion on the back of the work with the following text written underneath the figure of a Quaker woman on horseback with child (en route to the new land?): 

Looking for a supportive framework linking Friends 
interested in exploring varieties of nontheism as a 
strand within modern, diverse, liberal Quakerism?

Here at the end of Ends, with it’s endless layers of ambiguous and surreal imagery we are left with questions instead of resolutions. But why bother with resolution when fortuity is so much more appealing. Layers of rhetorical devices and illusions, ellipses and metonymies, allegory and metaphor. Each layer producing its effect in gaps and lapses of comprehension that make room and gesture to some kind of unconscious. Moments in-between layers—the parapraxis—that are the effect of the unconscious? 




(1) Fred Booty, ‘Four images of Mother, Father and daughter Mary telling a story of murder’ ca. 1906, Eve Pryor Collection of Comic Postcards, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/373789, last accessed Tuesday 5th December. 

(2) Helen Johnson, ‘A cancelled seminar, a misprinted newspaper, and Invasion Day graffiti: the Australian artist shares her selection of important images’, 02 August 2016, Frieze Magazine, https://frieze.com/article/portfolio-helen-johnson, last accessed on Tuesday 5th December. 

(3) Hal Gya, ‘DEAR FRIEND - I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING YOUR WHACK OF GOOD LUCK’ 1909, Eve Pryor Collection of Comic Postcards, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/373807, last accessed Tuesday 5th December. 

(4) Helen Johnson, ‘Helen Johnson: Ends Audio Guide: Mother painting’, New Museum, https://235bowery.s3.amazonaws.com/exhibitionlinks/270/114%20Helen%20Johnson-%20Mother%20Painting.mp3, last accessed Tuesday 5th December. 

(5) Helen Johnson, ‘Helen Johnson: Ends Audio Guide: Grandmother painting’, New Museum, https://235bowery.s3.amazonaws.com/exhibitionlinks/269/113%20Helen%20Johnson-%20Grandmother%20Painting.mp3,  last accessed Tuesday 5th December.

(6)Unattributed, ca. 1907, Eve Pryor Collection of Comic Postcards, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne,  http://hangle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/373872, last accessed Tuesday 5th December. 







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Helen Johnson Ends, 2017-2018, New Museum, New York.

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio


Helen Johnson Ends, 2017-2018, New Museum, New York.

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio


Helen Johnson Ends, 2017-2018, New Museum, New York.

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio


Helen Johnson Ends, 2017-2018, New Museum, New York.

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio


Helen Johnson Ends, 2017-2018, New Museum, New York.

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio


Helen Johnson Ends, 2017-2018, New Museum, New York.

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

Kelly Fliedner is a writer and curator who makes podcasts, and writes fiction and art criticism. Recently, she was part of the curatorial team of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale based in Kerala, India.