Words by Chris Mitchell // Images by Simen Johan
In his present series of images and sculptures, Until the Kingdom Comes (2005-), Simen Johan continues to explore the human predilection toward fantasy and emotional fulfillment, but here through the depiction of animals who mirror human conventions. A pair of dreamy foxes in a park during a snowstorm appears to be crying; a llama with a poodle haircut exhibits flamboyance. He creates mythical landscapes that hover in a space between fantasy and reality, emotion and reason, desire and fear, artifice and nature. Pastel colors, misty settings and fuzzy animals create beauty and wonder, but bloody noses, artificial hair and strangely knowing expressions suggest a darker reality. Overlapping eco-systems and the presence of man-made elements evoke a world where human intervention has confused all natural boundaries - an allusion to our inclination to anthropomorphize and domesticate the wild. Johan’s work focuses on how we, knowing or otherwise, construct myths, alternate realities, and personas for ourselves in order to find meaning, purpose and value in an otherwise incomprehensible and mortal reality.
“It has been said that humanity discovered itself when it learned to represent itself, first through imitation, then through symbolization. Through symbolization, we can comprehend not only the visible, but also that which cannot be tested-the unseen and intangible (love, emotions, faith and ‘God’ if we believe in God, and so forth)”
Johan doesn’t cop out with digital images; everything he shoots, he does on film. The images are then scanned and put together digitally to create masterpieces of light and shadow. It’s a technique that has been described as “painting by photography.”
“Photography has never really been that interesting to me as a medium because if all you do is capture already existing things, then you are more of an observer than a creator, and this is not something that fulfills my artistic ambitions. When working digitally, you can work more like a painter than a photographer. You essentially paint with photographs, inventing new worlds that come from an artist's imagination. You don't reproduce something that already exists; you create something of your own. Many of my landscapes, characters or animals don't actually exist, but are combinations of several different places, people or animals. The process involves using digital tools like brushes, pencils and color adjustments, requiring the user to have knowledge of light, perspective, color and composition, and to have rendering/illustrating skills that photographers generally don't have. And you still have to be a good photographer so you can capture great material for your compositions.
“People have a general perception that everything can be done easily in the computer, but anybody who has tried to make large scale seamless compositions realizes the difficulty of it, which is why not many artists work that way. You need matching lighting conditions, film type, sharpness, film grain size, perspective, angle, etc. You can't for instance (as some have suggested) use images off the internet, magazines, or even enlarge one detail from one negative at a greater percentage than other negatives used, because then the film grain sizes won't match up. You need good knowledge with how shadows fall, how perspective works and how various lighting conditions shine light on different surfaces. It's a very long, difficult and creatively draining process that in the general art world is often dismissed as simply being special effects, easy, or high budget production.”
Johan’s work with children suggests an innate knowledge of youth or perhaps a childlike quality in the artist himself . . . But this is not the case.
“I don't have an interest in children. I don't really like children. I use them because they represent that which we do intuitively, on instinct/not through knowledge or practice. They represent the part in all of us that, underneath it all, doesn't know who we are or what we really are doing in this world, which is interesting, considering how meaningful we perceive life to be.
“In my work of children, there is a search going on by the children into the unseen (the purpose, meaning, value of life), but at the same time they're mystifying things more than necessary, even that which is not really mysterious to begin with (We might need mystery in our lives because it gives us novelty and suspense?).”
Johan’s animal sculptures are a comment on the ways in which we try to make pets out of almost every animal we see, or turn them into decorations, or performers, or companions. The way we create new breeds through gene manipulation and so forth.
“In my animal images, there's an escape and denial going on, where the actions taking place seem to emerge from this very need to forget or escape the unknowability and transience of life.
“My animal series for example is motivated by living in America; the superficial values and ideals that are so much more in the open here than in Sweden for example (although all people seem to fancy superficial values to some extent, even if they won't admit it). This work is also greatly influenced by the current political state of the world, where wars are fought based on fictitious precepts and beliefs. This has made it evident to me how people in general are blind to logic and reason and habitually pursue what they desire and escape what they fear.”
“If you look at anything in life, you realize that things and situations are never quite what they are made out to be. There is no finite human understanding, only the process in which we believe in our inconsistent and often delusional senses, feelings, perceptions and urges. There is a certain logic to things, but in general, life, science and logic are too abstract for us to apply to our sense of meaning, purpose and value, because if we look at the world through science or reason, what we will see is that we are only one in billions of other people, in a world of endless time and space and soon we will vanish and be forgotten for all eternity. This reality is just too scary for us to admit and apply to our every day life, so we build facades and surfaces that give us the impression that we are unique and immortal.”
To view more Simen Johan Images visit our Simen Johan Gallery here