Behind Closed Doors: An Evening of Rockwellian Taboo
Wrong Again Gallery
October 13-25, 2012
Breaking the rules set at the Wrong Again gallery, Niki Johnson was present at her own opening. By design, Greely Myatt, owner and creator of the gallery space stipulates that the exhibiting artist uses Skype to attend the opening. This situation allows for out-of-region artists to easily be present without travel and gives a little interactivity to the gatherings.
Johnson installed a series of altered commemorative plates displaying Norman Rockwell paintings on the gallery wall. The small space behind a door in Myatt’s studio/garage mimicks and pokes fun at Maurizio Cattelan’s Wrong Gallery that existed in a Manhattan storefront doorway for three years. The Wrong Again Gallery, however, allows viewers to linger in the garage and talk to the artist on Skype. Johnson’s Skype conversation was instead to her house in Milwaukee. By the time the opening commenced the Wisconsin end of the conversation was a dark, empty room (Johnson’s husband failed to leave the lights on when he left the house after setting up the Skype earlier that afternoon). Luckily, having the artist in person nullified the black screen and brought an energy to the space.
Johnson received her B.F.A. from the University of Memphis in 2008 and her M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2012. She now teaches sculpture at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. She is interested in the space between places, clearly seen in the act of erasure on the commemorative plates. “I see the silhouettes as portals through which the audience can place themselves within Rockwell’s narrative; a space that once entered becomes emotionally complicated and oddly unsettling,” her exhibition statement reads. Her process involves collection of discarded commemorative plates, adhering a piece of paper to the surface of the plate with cut outs of the area to be erased, and sandblasting the original image away from the exposed areas.
The white figures become a metaphor for the idiom “seen and not heard”. Johnson states the erasure of the children in Rockwell’s plates illuminate dark undertones in the scenes harrowed as domestic nostalgia. While a sense of loneliness or irrelevance surrounds the erased figure upon contemplation, the initial viewing of the plates is humorous. By its very nature, erasing what used to exist in a painting or piece of artwork elicits a chuckle. As with DeKooning’s 1953 drawing erased by Rauschenberg, the act is deviant and a reclamation of power. Johnson is reclaiming the power of the domestic narrative from Rockwellian utopia and highlighting the dysfunction that was or that might have been.
Whether the plates stop at humor or examine deeper cultural norms is dependent on the viewer. In either case, the altered plates are a simple and clever addition to the altered ready-made.
M. Foster is a graduate student in sculpture and art history at the University of Memphis.