Ian Johnston: Reinventing Consumption

Sculpture Ian Johnston

The Chamber, 2013, (installation view), 7 minute cycle, 365 x 460 x 600-900 cm

So what’s really of more aesthetic interest: the process or the product? The method of the making, or the made thing itself? Obviously most of us would oft for the latter – for the sculptural artifact, the painting, the pot… But not everyone, and certainly not always. There are instances where the making can trump the made thing, and become primary in its own right.

But not every time. And not just because it’s supposed to.

Here’s where Ian Johnston comes into the picture. He’s a Canadian architect-turned-artist whose touring exhibition Reinventing Consumption, showing until the beginning of August at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery just outside of Toronto (www.rmg.on.ca/ian-johnston-reinventing-consumption.php), in large part ends up addressing the issue of process versus product.

Sculpture Ian Johnston

Between the Lines (Light), 2010, detail, silk screened stoneware, 270
pieces, each 25 x 19 x 3 cm, installation: 303 x 303 x 3 cm

Formally, however, Johnston is enquiring into our relationship with the made things of our manufactured environment, with the artifacts of the disposable culture we’ve created for ourselves and in which we seem, increasingly, to be drowning – literally and metaphorically. Over the years, he’s honed a technique for vacuum-forming thin slabs of clay laid over objects like an old rotary telephone, a tea kettle, or an incandescent light bulb. The clay, embossed with an impression of one of those objects, is then glazed with linear patterns, fired, and then installationally hung in large grids in which representational and abstract do their visual tug-of-war, pulling us at once towards the seeing of things, while pushing us away with dazzlingly strong patterns that verge on those of Op Art.

But these finished things, these products, aren’t what I want to talk about. Rather, it’s the process that is of concern, for as a major element of this exhibition, Johnston has created a kind of gallery-size version of his vacuum-forming techniques, a piece entitled The Chamber, as an aesthetic commentary on consumerism and the staggering levels of wastefulness inherently built into that economic “model”. It’s situated off in its own separate exhibition space so as not to distract from other work, and constitutes a seven minute loop of activity that cyclically repeats itself.

What it essentially boils down to is an enormous, gallery-sized plastic bag that is connected to a large blower/vacuum. Over the course of the seven minute cycle, the bag inflates to become a large, translucent block of tightly stretched plastic, and then slowly deflates to reveal the contours of a pile of things that have been inserted within as the air inside is sucked out and the bag tightly clings, like plastic-wrap, to all this inner stuff. We see the equivalent of the embossing that occurs on his clay slabs, though at a much different, much larger scale and without the intervening layer of a medium that has its own inherent interest.

Sculpture Ian Johnston

The Chamber, 2013, (installation view), 7 minute cycle, 365 x 460 x 600-900 cm

And it’s a quite a pile of things we visually encounter, ranging in size and scale from what appears to be an office desk at the one extreme, to an old vinyl recording of the Osmonds at the other, with all sorts of other, for the most part unidentifiable, things occupying the middle ground..

And so we oscillate between seeing essentially little more than a representation of the consumption of space, to seeing the somewhat more visually complex shape of an accumulation, an untidy pile of somethings that, in part, occupies that space. Back and forth.

Sculpture Ian Johnston

Between the Lines (Dark) 2010, (installation Detail), silk screened
stoneware,270 pieces, each 25 x 19 3 cm, installation: 303 x 303 x 3 cm

But, alas, that’s where it all ends – in an endless, rather tedious and pointless shifting back and forth between oppositional poles. The Chamber never succeeds in achieving any kind of transcendence, never surpasses the excess and glut it ostensibly comments on to become something entirely other, something beyond, or outside of, its own mere physical process.

When you come right down to it, an aesthetic built around process inevitably becomes an aesthetic built around product. Process treated as a product becomes product. So, with Ian Johnston’s recent work, it’s better to bypass attempts at all of this and go straight on to the real stuff: to the bodies of work collectively entitled The Antechamber, four wall-mounted installations comprised of the embossed and fired clay slabs hung in large grids. Here, there’s real dynamic tension between representation – images embossed into the clay repeated across the walls– and abstraction – the almost painterly, but visually disruptive linear patterns vertically draped across the shaped clay surfaces.

Here, too, there is transcendence. Otherness.

Now, that’s more like it.

By Gil McElroy

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