A Commentary on Animals and Human Boundaries – Merritt Johnson at Grunt Gallery

Merritt Johnson, Buffalo vector border crossing (Yellowstone), 2009. Her work is on view at Grunt Gallery, Vancouver, until June 26, 2010.

I visited Vancouver, BC for the mid-show opening of “Merritt Johnson: Sky Dome (props, patches, rips, and tears)” at Grunt Gallery on May 28th.  The exhibition featured paintings and a pair of sculptures by Merritt Johnson, who is faculty at Emily Carr. The “Sky Dome” in the title references the traditional Iroquois representation of the sky as a dome over the earth. (Johnson is of mixed Mohawk, Blackfoot, and non-aboriginal heritage). The series plays with the arbitrary marking out of property lines, boundaries, and borders, visually represented by red lines overlayed onto the landscape.  Pinkish-red  or blue v-shaped vector lines represent natural flows, such as wind, water, or animal migrations. In some of the paintings, the red line has smeared and bled out over the landscape, traipsed through by animals and birds who have scattered and broken the boundary lines. At other times, the red lines have become physical objects that are then used by the animals to build ladder forms and lodge poles that prop up the sky.

Merritt Johnson, Patching and Propping (up) the Sky Dome, 2009. Image courtesy of he artist.

It is difficult to make out in the digital images, but the detail shots show the blue bears standing on a platform, placing skins against the dome of the sky. In the lower right, the two dark specks are coyote and rabbit, two trickster figures responsible for many new inventions and as well as disasters. Here, they push a lodge pole up against another pole to help support the dome of the sky, actually deforming the shape of the dome and strengthening the painting’s visual reference to the shape of a tipi. This particular painting is ink and gouache on paper and is quite large at 40 x 60 inches. Gold leaf at the very bottom of the work symbolizes gold and oil underground.

DETAIL of Patching and Propping (up) the Sky Dome

I visited Johnson at her studio in downtown Vancouver, and this is what she had to say about the animals in her paintings:


I was thinking about different animals – for a long time I worked with birds as a stand-in for people. This started years ago, while I was still in school and working very much with performance, primarily. I was using birds as stand-in for humans and also as birds, because birds are, I think, unique in that we don’t have as much ability to control them. They fly through and over everything, so they are active in the land wherever they want to be. They have this freedom from us in a way that I think is really great. I think of them as witnessing, in that they are always present. So I was using birds for that reason, but also using them to stand in for us. Then that grew from birds to other animals that I felt made sense, in terms of what the animal stands for, realistically and also symbolically.

I used the bears in that one because they are so powerful and often thought of as being really aggressive.  They’ve been hunted, hunted as enemies. We don’t want to live with them. They are also really big and they have this strange ability to walk on two legs or four legs. They have this strange inhuman humanness. In terms of animals of North America, bears are the biggest. They are bigger than men when they stand up and their range covered all of North America. This led me to the idea of an animal using its skin to patch the sky. At the time, I was doing a lot of work with rawhide, with deerskin, for the performance piece Museum Quality. This idea came from the size of the bearskins – being so big – I started thinking about, well, what if there were bears that were the same color as the sky? What if they wanted to fix the sky and they were willing to give up their skins to patch the sky? That was the idea that was at the heart of the animals in all of the works.

Animals are far more selfless than we are. Human investment in land is so much about resources, about what we can get for land and what the land can do for us. It’s all about use, for our comfort or convenience. I started thinking about a different way of approaching the land. I think that there is an indigenous approach to the land: to view the land as something that we need to sustain, rather than the land sustaining us. I think about the relationship that animals have to the land as being an indigenous relationship.

But for the purposes of this work, that’s why the animals take on all of our roles.

And yet, in a way, the bears are still bears and the birds are birds. [1]  

Gallery View, Injured Turkey Protects the Sky in the background

The series of works relies upon carefully punctuated details. Moving around the gallery, viewing one piece after another, each has its own animals and its own use of the red lines. Sometimes the red lines are man-made obstructions, other times the animals tear through them and the lines fall apart. In some cases, the animals fashion the red lines into repair tools. One of the works is a combination sculpture and painting; Injured Turkey Protects the Sky consists of a painting of a stormy sky with tears in the fabric of the sky above a bleeding red border line. Beneath the painting, a turkey spreads its wings protectively over the broken pieces of sky. Blue construction materials and red mylar are jumbled together in a pile, as if waiting for rabbit and coyote, bear, crow, raven, and turkey to carry the pieces back up into the sky to begin repairs.

Johnson’s work is a carefully crafted commentary on the boundaries that humans set and the boundaries set in the natural world. Patterns of migration, airflow, water evaporation, all create their own natural boundaries – factors not considered when we humans set our boundaries, borders, and fences. Johnsons points this out with a subtle, wry humor and beautiful handling of paint.

“Merritt Johnson: Sky Dome (props, patches, rips, and tears),” curated by Tania Willard,  is on view at Grunt Gallery through June 26th. Grunt Gallery: #116 – 350 East 2nd Ave, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V5T 4R8, Phone: 604.875.9516

[1] Merritt Johnson, personal communication, May 29, 2010, Vancouver, BC.

One thought on “A Commentary on Animals and Human Boundaries – Merritt Johnson at Grunt Gallery

  1. Pingback: Sneaky Boundaries: Video of Merritt Johnson’s “Clouds Live Where” « Not Artomatic

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