An Interview with Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson’s paintings seem to scratch away at the surface of everyday life to reveal remarkable visions that we don’t take time to notice. With subtly surprising composition and perspective, she casts us, along with a host of familiar but unlikely characters, into a world “upended” and enticing. Though beautifully rendered, the hint of stylistic naiveté or eccentricity adds an element of folklore or mythology, and everything speaks to us: signs, animals, monsters, wayward balloons. The perfect balance of light and dark, silence and noise, despair and hope, teeters on the edge of chaos, but some endearing sense of connection between humans and between humanity and the magic all around us is ultimately transcendent.

Though the setting for your paintings is often kind of ordinary or every day—a subway  car, a city street, a park bench–there’s a sense that if people paid more attention they’d see  something remarkable…if they didn’t have their head buried in the newspaper or glued to their phones they’d see anything from subway dancers to ghosts or zombies or people  flying through the air. Do you think of a balance between quotidian and remarkable,  reality and surreality when you choose subjects to paint? 

You’ve put your finger on it exactly. I think we can be so far into our routines and distractions that it takes a lot to jolt us out of them. I like to introduce something remarkable into ordinary,  everyday circumstances because I think that there are always interesting things happening all  around us––and sometimes some very surreal things. 

Along the same lines, can you talk a little about the supernatural elements of your  paintings—ghosts and vampires and zombies? It feels less like a picture of these creatures  and more like a commentary on the people in the pictures, as if somehow the actions of the  humans conjured the monsters, or the humans are unwittingly turning into the monsters.  But maybe that’s true of all monster myths! 

I really think it’s important for us to pay attention to what is happening in our inner as well as outer life. Maybe angels and ghosts can represent the affirmative vibrations inside us, and the  zombies, monsters, etc. are possibly negative, angry, twisted ones. And perhaps people are  responsible for inadvertently summoning or conjuring these creatures that are really just  subconscious desires breaking through to give us some sort of message, good or bad. What’s the reaction to these manifestations? Are we frightened or angry, and ignore these things if possible, or open up to what they’re trying to tell us about ourselves? 

In the series “Coney Island 1-6,” I thought the six paintings should tell a story about attraction,  and by acknowledging that attraction––a truth that was kept hidden inside, and perhaps was  thought bad or wrong––that could possibly set one free. In mythology, a person’s ability to fly is a form of transcendence, escaping some kind of boundary or especially unpalatable situation. I  like to think that the act of the two women flying means that we have power to overcome  difficulties or problems going on in our lives, and become free of them. 

A couple of paintings in particular are so intriguing and mysterious to me. I don’t  know how you feel about explaining your work too overtly, but can you shed a little light  on “O,” White Van,” and “World Gone Wrong” they all seem to have a chaotic, cult-like feel, that’s maybe not all that different from the monster pictures, in terms of converting  people to a (maybe?) dark side. 

World Gone Wrong and ‘O’ are companion paintings. I was wondering what a post-apocalypse  world would be like. What would be the good and bad of that kind of world? In the painting, it  is many years after the apocalypse and people are together in some sort of a nomadic tribe called  ‘O’. There are no restaurants, highways, or cars, and houses are destroyed or remain as  curiosities. The destination, a former McDonalds, has been converted into a dwelling place or a  way station.  

People are relying on each other and seem to be happily part of group ‘O’. But people move  within the destroyed, chaotic world and have no curiosity about what that lost world was like.  The group are burning a fire made of former signs––not reading them, burning them, because  there is no literacy. There is no wonder or curiosity at what used to be, or any attempt to  maintain the past. Knowledge and literacy are reduced and unneeded, and guns and survival  skills are the only things coveted.  

In the painting “White Van,” day laborers are competing for work that’s provided from whoever  is in the white van, doing anything to be chosen to work that day. You never see whoever is in  the white van––they are faceless, anonymous. Also faceless are the group of men competing for  work. This just shows two anonymous forces, those that have and those that want. 

I’m fascinated by what I see as elements of drawing in your very painterly pictures.  The textures of walls, skies, grass, etc are very rich and evocative, but I’m really drawn to  some of the delicate patterns: chain link fences, gorgeously rendered shopping carts, an  unexpected but perfect ping pong net. Can you tell us a little about your technique? 

I love the expressiveness in drawing, and detail and textures are very important to me, perhaps  more important than form and color. I start with a drawing first, then build the painting in layers,  putting in washes of color, and I generally use only a few colors. If I feel the painting needs  more detail at the end, or if I want to emphasize something, I will add it with a fine brush. 

I also really love the wonky but perfect perspective and framing, as well as the depth of  field, the sense that stories are unfolding in the distance or just out of our sight. There’s  sometimes an in-between-place or in-between-time feeling in the worlds you create. How do  you approach space in your work? 

I wanted to make a  painting about aspiration. I took an ordinary city street and sort of upended it, leading the eye  upwards.

I sometimes play with the painting space to make things more immediate, or tilt things to make a  more dramatic, symbolic, or surreal effect. In “Freedom Square, Bushwick,” I wanted to make a  painting about aspiration. I took an ordinary city street and sort of upended it, leading the eye  upwards. The three religious people are aspirational through preaching and singing, the man attempts to pull the shopping cart up to the top of the street, and the iron statue of the angel  reaches the sky, and may or may not be ready to come to life and fly off the pedestal.

Your work seems utterly original to me, though of course as a human I always look for  connections and influences. Who are you inspired by? In visual art, film, and especially  music, which I see as a motif in your work. 

I’m always listening to music while I paint, and I watch a lot of TV and movies. I love film and  music that try to explore new corners and rework themes, the adventurous ones that try to spin straw into gold, attempting to invent and reinvent. These artists can sometimes look at  something that appears mundane and everyday, highlight it, and then mythologize it. Like for  example the way Bruce Springsteen kind of mythologized and elevated blue collar life, or the  way Bob Dylan made the remarkable songs he did by reaching down into the inner self, folklore,  spirituality––whatever he saw around him. I love Fellini films, how he elevates and transforms his films into a surreal, almost religious experience. 

I love the signs in your work: diner signs, street signs, billboards, advertisements,  fliers. And not just the text, though that’s beautiful (R U LOST) but the drawings as well,  symbols in the signs, art or sketches on the walls. Can you talk a little about these details? 

Sometimes these details––the signs, ads, graffiti, etc. serve the composition of the painting, and  make everything work, make it more interesting. But other times I want the viewer to see that  there is some kind of connection of the random things you see out in the world, and how things  sometimes are infused with meaning that human beings put into them. 

. I thought that these people were sort of  nomads traveling to seek fortune elsewhere, relying on a kind of unreliable luck, the joker’s luck  of America.

In “At Mr. Lucky’s, Heading South,” the joker sign is laughing. He’s scary, dwarfing the human  travelers under him, promising but not delivering. I thought that these people were sort of  nomads traveling to seek fortune elsewhere, relying on a kind of unreliable luck, the joker’s luck  of America. The repurposed text in the picture, R U Lost, just emphasizes what these travelers  have lost by not having a home or a place in the world, or even just being spiritually lost. 

Animals are a frequent visitor to your paintings, cats, rats, dogs, sheep, birds, a deer, a  turtle. Often they seem to be observing the human behavior, but sometimes they seem a  little vulnerable, and other times almost threatening. Is there a conscious pattern? Are they  symbols or characters or maybe both? 

I do a lot of paintings of animals with humans that have a symbolic meaning to what’s going on  in the work. For example, in the painting “Chambers Street,” a girl is waiting at the Chambers  Street subway station in New York City. At Chambers Street, there are a lot of stray birds,  sparrows mostly, that actually hang out and fly around down there. I wanted the bird to be a  symbol of something the girl was experiencing inwardly while she was waiting for the train.  Even at a grimy subway station, someone can have some sort of epiphany. In “Girl with a  Turtle,” I thought the turtle could represent something that the girl was struggling with, and that  even though she was struggling and it seemed too large for her, she was successfully carrying it to the shore.

I studied drawing and painting at the Art Students League and Queens College. My work has appeared in many group exhibitions, including Every Woman Biennial 2019, Open Doors Arts Festival at Gallery Affero, OUTPOST Artist Resources (Bushwick Open Studios event), Lorimoto Gallery, Exit Art, Sara Meltzer Gallery, Gallery at St Joseph’s College, The Photo Gallery, Williamsburg, Special Exhibition at Borough Hall, Brooklyn, Williamsburg Art and Historical Center (WAH), The Brooklyn Working Artists Coalition, Kentler International Drawing Space, Myrtle Windows Gallery, BRIC House Gallery, Brooklyn, and a special exhibition at the Whitney Museum. My work is also in various collections, including the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York.

You can see more of Liz Johnson’s work at and on Instagram @lizspodiodi

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