July 24, 2015 / 12:52pm
Harris Johnson’s American Ramble is a stream-of-consciousness text painting directly on the gallery wall. As you read it, a growing sense of anxiety takes over, a kind of tidal wave of boredom, violence, and hopelessness. And yet, in league with Johnson’s other work, it also manages to somehow be funny. Not “funny Ha-Ha” but terribly funny: satirical, flippant, and sharp. Here are some of Harris’s thoughts on his Ramble, excerpted from an interview with Associate Curator Rose Bouthillier. The full version is available in the How to Remain Human catalog, available for free download online (hardcopies are available for purchase online and in the MOCA Store).
Rose Bouthillier: When you make a painted text piece like American Ramble, is that your experience, or is it meant to speak to more of a generalized consciousness, a broader, shared experience?
Harris Johnson: I hope it’s effective in a general sense, in a broader picture. I don’t want to be specific in a politic; I don’t want to be specific in a statement. I don’t want to tell people what I think, or what they should think. I want people to feel, ideally, kind of queasy and unsure, happy and afraid. Going through oscillations of feeling, really comfortable and then terrified. This is really bleak… like the dumbness thing. People might ask, “Is this guy an idiot? Or, is he really on to something? Does he really care about the world and what’s going on?” And I do. I do. That gesture, scribbling on a wall, is a very teen angsty, spazzy thing. But it’s also expressive, and I believe in that communicative directness. That’s probably what I retain from my earlier paintings, the idea of intuition being really, really important, along with improvisation. “MacGyver-ing” it and winging it on the fly is really, really important. People see that in a work and they might think, “Oh, there’s no planning.” But there’s also no hesitation, there’s no doubt. There’s mistakes, there’s bad moves, but there’s good moves, too. Maybe.
RB: When I was reading American Ramble I was struck by all of the dated references: Jon Benet Ramsey, OJ Simpson. Is that because those things are related to the development of your psyche as a child of the 80s?
HJ: That’s one way of looking at it. But also, you can think about Rodney King—which I don’t really remember, I wasn’t tuned in at that moment—and then think about today and all of the police brutality. The ramble piece is a really frustrated piece, because I don’t know what the fuck to say. I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know how to say it, but I know I’m mad about something, and that I can’t articulate it. Something is so fucked up, something is so wrong, and nothing has really changed. It’s not really that different. The way that the news is structured, commercials or whatever, there’s a cut sequence between a 12-year-old girl being raped and murdered to a special interest story to a commercial to a bunch of dudes chilling out... Dodge, Dodge, rock hard cock, American man. That shit is really disturbing to me. And it’s hard to express how disturbing it is.
The dated references are dated but they’re part of the cultural … blech. Jon Bennet Ramsey is as much a part of it as John Wayne Gacey, Al Capone, Babe Ruth. I could talk about Desert Storm and it would be the same as Iraq or Iran. ISIS is the same as Contra. That’s why the tone of the piece is just really, really pissed off, it really makes me angry. There’s a lot about the world that I’m unspecifically pissed off about.