Double Conciousness and Hot Wheels

Sean M Johnson and myself

“I put a lot of work into it. You should too.” These are the words Sean M Johnson used to describe his show as I sat with him last Monday. His show at Howard House this month chases his status as a finalist for the Betty Bowen award at the SAM, and indeed he has put a lot of work into it. But what is surprising is how few works (enumeratively) he has at HH, one more than five fingers. Thank god he has enough social content to load into the spaces in between. This is what he means when he says “you should (work) too” - he wants your brain to get off the couch and think.

This is a ploy I see every month in other Seattle art shows: to make you do the work of figuring out context for a painting or sculpture that never had any. Boo to them, and kudos to Sean. He achieves the distinction of an artist who has injected meaning into his work, yet still makes you consider your own.
A Cautionary Tale, Sean M Johnson, 2010
china cabinet, red tape, china and nails
photo courtesy of Howard House

The first thing to consider at Howard House is the china cabinet spilling its guts all over the floor, suspended against the South wall with red hot "DANGER" tape. White porcelain is splashed all over the gallery floor. What I thought was a morbid retelling of a Thanksgiving accident at Sean's Nana's house turned out to be a completely different tale.

"No", he laughed, "It's not about that at all". The piece, A Cautionary Tale, was inspired by home foreclosures in Ohio, one of which was in Sean's family. An entire neighborhood of homes was roped off to be sold, and the response was righteous anger. People started destroying their homes rather then see them taken in pristine condition. Sean saw it all, "I saw people stuffing the drains and flooding their homes". For him the china cabinet became a symbol of the established home. "You buy a china cabinet when you're settled", he explained. Smashing a TV doesn't have the significance of smashing your beloved, heirloom, eating receptacles.

False Identity 1, Sean M Johnson, 2010
half of a brown leather chair and paint
photo courtesy of Howard House

False Identity 1 and 2 is a cut brown leather chair, one half painted white, the other black. The halves are balanced on their two feet, no hidden wires or adhesives are involved. The trick is spooky and had me baffled. When I finally got my hands on the press release for the show, it became abundantly clear what the piece was about: the exterior colors of our bodies.

"One painted white and the other black, the two works reference the artist’s struggle with identity and represent his eventual acceptance that “being comfortable in my skin has nothing to do with the color of my skin.” This blurb is strikingly familiar to W.E.B. Du Bois' text on "double consciousness", his term for the paradox of being a colored person in America. "Two warring ideals" Du Bois wrote, "in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder"

False Identity 2, Sean M Johnson, 2010
half of a brown leather chair and paint
photo courtesy of Howard House

Sean's chair is torn apart, literally, splaying viscera of foam padding and coils; further separated through a binary of painted color. The precarious split is visual evidence that without both of these constructed identities to lean on, they must balance to stay afloat individually.

Every piece at Howard House this month involves a balancing act or a precarious delicacy of some kind that could be disrupted. One of the chair halves (the black one) was knocked over during the reception and had to be uprighted by the Sean.

Another disrupted work, I Was Nine, a self portrait made of roughly 1650 Hot Wheels cars was rearranged by an unattended small girl. Small pixels of the left arm were driven away before anyone realized. The mother (I presume) in this photo quickly filled in the chunk of Sean's arm, and the damage was healed.

I Was Nine, Sean M Johnson, 2010
self portrait in Hot Wheels (R)

Sean's use of non-traditional art materials invites the kinds of interactions we are not used to in galleries, we are no longer reacting to art materials but our own daily iconography. We respond differently to a real china cabinet than we would to a painting of a china cabinet. Sean is surprisingly unsurprised about the strangeness of these responses. He laughed about his piece tipping over and the little girl who drove away with his art. Personally, I would give anything to take a running leap onto those Hot Wheels; and I think Seattle should take a running leap into artists like Sean, who stretch our preconceived notions of what art is made of and what it can communicate to society.