An Interview with Jess Johnson
May 21, 2021
Have you always aspired to create art, or did you discover your calling later in life?
I’ve always compulsively drawn from when I was first able to. A lot of the distinctive elements of my artwork are evident in the drawings I was doing back in my childhood. Lots of dense repeating patterns, geometric borders, coiled worms, body horror.
Did you study art as a student or are you self-taught?
I went to art school in the South Island of New Zealand. It was quite a free-for-all scene back then. Not a lot of structure or academic learning as such. For me art school was more about discovery and experimentation. Lots of chaotic share houses, bonfires, drug taking and music. I dropped out in my third year though did eventually go back and finish. I didn’t have the discipline or focus to channel all the jumbled compulsions into one art direction until I was older, around age 30.
What artists informed your development? And what artists do you look to now for inspiration?
The artwork I’m most drawn to is very different to mine. My own artwork is structurally very rigid and controlled, almost machine like. Conversely what draws me to others is a feeling of looseness. Art that is unedited and emotionally raw. I like a lot of self-taught, outsider artists. Susan Te Kahurangi King is a New Zealand artist who creates these dense symphonic drawings of repetitive patterns and cartoon-like mashups. She also has autism and has been non-verbal since the age of four so her drawing developed as her prime means of communication and expression. I also love Fletcher Hanks who was a twisted comic book auteur of the 1930’s. And Jack Kirby too, who was one of the most influential, innovative, and prolific comic book creators of all time.
What was a pivotal moment in the evolution of your work?
A pivotal moment in my work was when I let myself draw what I wanted to draw. I had a period at art school where I thought I should be making ‘real art’, whatever that was. Nothing in the glossy art magazines looked like the stuff I was into. I thought my interests were juvenile or something to be embarrassed about and hidden. Years later I came back to art through drawing and didn’t feel that pressure to make ‘real art’ anymore. I found I just wanted to draw the same stuff that I’d always been doodling as a teenager… aliens, worms and weird architecture.
Tell us about your process. Do you begin with an image or a concept?
I don’t like to plan things too much. A drawing usually starts off with one element; the text or a central image. While I’m drawing that I’ll start to think of the next thing. It’s a slow emergence of imagery and ideas that arise during the labour process. Time and labour is a really important part of the work. The long hours spent staring at paper and making hundreds of repetitive marks allows my mind to get to a place where the elements of the world begin to morph and fit together in new arrangements. The images couldn’t happen quickly. It’s more of a slow dredging process. I also make a myriad of mistakes throughout the drawings and those mistakes act as mutational directions that I have to integrate into the work. If I were able to digitally erase my mistakes, I wouldn’t necessarily get that organic growth in the world. I like that it’s a little out of my control.
What informs your work? As a visual artist, are you inspired by music, film, science, literature or other art forms?
My first encounters with art was through book covers, records, movie posters, comics, and gig fliers. The artwork on a book or album cover is what would attract me. Some of my favourite images remain the sci fi book covers of the ’60s and ’70s which you could get cheap from second hand bookstores. They were windows into infinitely bigger universes than the small New Zealand town I grew up in.
I’ve always liked reaching outside the artworld in terms of audiences. The artworld can be very exclusionary for a number of reasons so being able to reach wider audiences has always been more satisfying for me. People that don’t have access or inclination to visit art galleries but absorb art through popular culture in the same way I did when I was young. NFTs can be one of these new mediums to expose people to art.
What was the most challenging project that you worked on?
The most challenging project I’ve worked on was Terminus, a virtual reality experience in five parts that was commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia in 2018. It was premiered within a huge gallery installation with bespoke architectural structures and a full-scale tessellated floor map. We had a small team that worked on it for a year. It showed me what was possible when you are given more resources to extend your vision beyond your own means. But the logistics of the undertaking were huge. All of the administrative tasks involved took time away from the fun creative stuff, so it was a struggle to find that equilibrium. Drawing is what makes me happiest so I have to be diligent to carve time out for that.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do?
I most enjoy that I get to choose how to spend my day. I like spending a lot of time alone in the studio thinking my own thoughts. It’s almost like the drawings are a byproduct of spending long hours alone in a room. When I shut the door of my studio I am shutting out the whole world and I have complete control over the little universe of my own making.