Fitting in with the Squares

Before I can work with a material a moment of understanding has to happen. Sometimes newsreels deliver this moment. At other times it appears in a book or a conversation or right before I fall asleep. When it arrives, I am able to discern how a material can unite with an idea to form a conversation. I often wait, sometimes for years, maintaining awareness of the world around me, anticipating the right fit.    

This post narrates how my latest piece Fitting in with the Squares (Self-Portrait) came to be. 

Fitting in with the Squares by Niki Johnson

Fitting In With The Squares (Self-Portrait), Porcelain Norman Rockwell commemorative plates on wood, 67″x 47″, 2019


An Unscripted Chain of Events (timing)

The warm saccharine glow of Norman Rockwell’s imagery is burnished into the periphery of my childhood alongside my grandparents’ soft smiles and my parents’ simultaneous eye rolls. Winking coercively from pages of magazines and television advertisements, his illustrated armies of perfectly imperfect girls never resonated with me. I was generation Atari 2600.

Nearly thirty years later however, I relished finding Rockwell’s commemorative plates in thrift stores. In the hilarity and horror of discovering new Rockwellian vignettes, I admit to being awash in what I can best describe as feminist schadenfreude. No matter the collectors boxes, serial numbers or certificates of authenticity, these heirlooms weren’t making the generational cut- and thrift stores appeared to be struggling to move them for three dollars a piece.

Initially I took their second market failure as a glimmering sign of cultural progress, yet the sheer volume of plates available revealed the mark of indelible cultural relevance. Rebuffing the content of Rockwell’s images didn’t distance the persistence of its messaging in my life either. If anything it gave me a clearer understanding of how formative resistance can be. Sensing their value within the timeline of American material culture, and with no clear plan I began to collect. I figured I’d store them until I knew what to do.

Then Leonard Cohen died in early November 2016. The next evening our Electoral College selected the 45th president. Somewhere in the malaise of the days that followed I bought You Want it Darker and Cohen’s songs became a balm, a sacred auditory guide that ferried me across the swirling waves of despair I felt when the words “president-elect” and “Trump” were said in succession.

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As weeks passed, the projects in my studio went from full color to black and white and then to black on black. I reverted into my sketchbook, and then pulled back from drawing to journaling. Soon I quit writing, finding solace in arranging shelves and combing through boxes.

While stacking and sorting, I came across an old photograph in a memory box. It was an accidental self-portrait; the kind you’d discover after printing a roll of film. The moment it captured took place in the late ’90s after an iron pour. I had just taken off my leathers. My fingers were still sooty with coke. A short time after this photo was taken, I’d withdraw from school, drop my classes and drive my ’92 VW Golf packed with everything I owned to California. I was halfway through my bachelor’s degree, in a relationship, surrounded by friends and family, yet I knew in order to become who I was meant to be I had to leave. I had met the path of self actualization. 

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As I continued through the studio, it became clear that my habit of thrifting commemorative plates had gotten a little out of hand. Amassed slowly, a couple dollars at a time for over a decade, I now had few hundred Norman Rockwell plates. Mixed in with church fundraiser plates, Mother’s Day plates, an assortment of creepy toddlers, flora and fauna, idyllic American landscapes and state plates, their assortment was representative of what was on the shelves. Stacks of old white men interacting with school age white children, old white married couples nestled in domestic settings, middle aged white men happily doing chores, white women in the kitchen, white women nestled into furniture with pets, white couples enjoying leisurely activities, comfortable white families, safe white children, and happy white teenagers sat in piles on every available surface in the studio. 

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Seeing the collection together stung with uncanny relevance. Shining back at me was an America where father knew best, women knew their place and people of color were not part of the story. It was MAGA illustrated.

And then I understood. I saw the photograph take form out of pieces of the plates. Aesthetically they shared a color palette. They also resisted each other in a way that instinctually fit. I was going to insert myself in this narrative in a moment of my own becoming– a woman not to be sidelined, censured or cleaned up. In order to do this I’d have to again, break the frame. 


Object Lesson (thoughts before sawing)

I like to imagine thrift stores as the last screen in a filtration system for valuables. They are where sentiment and surplus go to enjoy an unruly afterlife together. The meaning of an item orphaned from it’s original context may warp and twist in generational translations, relying upon a shopper’s point of reference to reestablish it’s purpose. Organization is dictated by shelf space. Grouped in color gradients (if you’re lucky) and seasonal themes (kinda), the whims of charity reign supreme when thrifting. A few steps up from the trash heap, thrift stores are one of my favorite places to sift for cultural signifiers and learn about material habits.

My criteria for loading a plate into the cart begins with if it makes me wonder why it exists in the first place. Dinner plates rarely make their way into the basket. They make sense. Decorative plates as a genre however, are truly curious. To take the most universal utilitarian object in the world, the very item we share our family recipes upon and render it a wall hanging glazed with materials deemed unsafe for food is both decadent and bizarre. Their function enters the realm of the symbolic.

Similar to the process art goes through before hanging on the walls of a gallery, imagery on commemorative plates is assumed to have undergone some form of vetting before being presented to the public. From what I’ve observed, images with the capacity to abate emotional insecurity, encourage a reliving of the past or ease anxieties of time passing are most desirable in this genre. The valuation of selected images accrues when they are glazed on fine porcelain, a material associated with class and heirlooms through the ages. Add mass production into the mix and these kitsch collectables are made accessible to millions. Their cultural metanarratives offer to supplant lived experiences with perfected archetypes, at times even employing anthropomorphism to do so. (See above.)

Many of the plates I picked up came in original boxes with certificates of authenticity and at least one brochure promising a high second market value. Averaging $20 each in the late 1970s (equivalent to about $80 now) it is easy to see why these assurances were crucial to their popularity. Made in limited editions (though often numbering in the thousands), commemorative plate campaigns framed the customer experience as akin to being a member in an exclusive club. These clubs were highly popular. From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, collector plates enjoyed one of the longest running speculative markets of any modern-day collectible. The bubble burst in the late 1980s.

The largest cohort of collectors to purchase commemorative plates during the last quarter of the twentieth century belonged to the Great Generation. This group of consumers grew up on limited means during the Great Depression, experienced World War II as young adults and retired from the working class having achieved higher levels of material comfort than previous generations. Noted for their rubber band balls, hoarding of used tools and scraps of cloth, they bought commemorative plates as investment pieces.

By the mid-1970s, with decades of his ad work being reproduced on commemorative plates, Norman Rockwell’s career spanned over a half century. Championed the “Painter of American Life”, Rockwell was a technically gifted commercial illustrator and a household name. Enlisting neighbors and young children he approached in school yards to model, Rockwell crafted narratives of everyday working class white American life during the Jim Crow era. This was the audience his advertisers and publishers targeted, and he catered to their wishes. Beginning in the early 1960s Rockwell’s works included imagery sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, however those works were not the selected for commemoration. Instead, one decade after the Civil Rights Act became law, a decade remembered for strides made women’s rights, the end of the Vietnam War and acute civil unrest, plate manufacturers chose to commemorate selections of Rockwell’s imagery that served to reify traditional gender power dynamics and placate white fears within an ever changing American cultural landscape.  

As Rockwell’s imagery shifted from advertisement to commemorative, the original commercial purpose for his illustration faded into the background. Consider the example above. While both presentations are designed to invoke desire, the consumer experiences of the ad and the plate are nuanced and quite different. In 1920, The Melody of Music and the Melody of Light (At the Piano) asked the public to envision future evenings with friends improving with the addition of Mazda Edison light bulbs. In 1984, Close Harmony encouraged a nostalgic reminiscence of evenings in the past spent with friends and family. The lightbulbs become a tertiary concern, if that. Assembled into cohesive thematic series, often across a mishmash of periods in Rockwell’s career, Simpler Times, American Heritage, Rediscovering Women and other plate lines, provided a platform for his illustrations to exist without the trappings of their history.

Finding these plates in large numbers at thrift stores underscored their failure as heirloom momentos. However in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, with white nationalism on the rise and restrictions on women’s physical autonomy ratcheting up, it was as if their messaging had found new hosts. The indelibility of their messages had spread across the Twittersphere, and was being shouted by talking heads on various media platforms. These plates no longer appeared to be relics of the past fulfilling an aging generation’s need to self soothe. This America, untethered from the social niceties of Rockwell’s era, was in power again.


Process (part to whole)

My set up in the studio included a tile saw, an assortment of tile and glass blades and piles of plates. I fashioned a jig out of scrap plywood and bolted down a piece of leftover plexiglass on top to help keep it dry. (A year into cutting, this jig disintegrated and I upgraded to a plastic square. -Tip for future plate cutters: Go plastic!) 

IMG_9491I worked in an assembly line fashion my ancestors who worked in factories would’ve appreciated. Staring each session with a stack of ten plates, I ran them through the various stages of cutting as a group to save time on changing blades. I’d begin by cutting the stack of plates into strips with a glass blade. Then I’d change to a tile blade to rough cut the feet off the back of the strips. Switching back to the glass blade, I’d finish by trimming the strips down to squares. Glass blades while slow going through porcelain prevented the imagery from chipping, as did guiding them through the saw bed face up.

Ten plates took five hours to process from start to finish, and yielded 300 squares. Ultimately I’d end up cutting 9000 to get the 2400 of the right color I needed. In the warm months, I’d take breaks when the tile saw’s water tray needed to be refilled. In the winter, I’d fill the tray with warm water and work until it got cold. 

As the plates became strips and the strips became squares, elements in the illustrations I hadn’t noticed before came into focus. Rockwell’s tightly constructed narratives became fragmentary abstractions. The visual boundaries he created by placing a figure or an object in the foreground ground stopping a viewer from entering the image were gone. The single gesture of a hand, the expression on a face, the tonal mood set in foreground and backgrounds all retained the mark of his hand, but the elements were freed. A one inch format maintained a light curvature from the plates, making the material recognizable, referential and familiar.

Unlike the measurable hours of sitting on a stool cutting, days spent sorting the squares into color palettes took on their own rhythm. Breaks happened when my coffee cup ran dry, a podcast wrapped up or my feet gave out. My Mom and my friend Kayle jumped in periodically to help out. It was like doing math with color, adding certain squares to a group here or moving them over to a tray there, but as there were no right answers, achieving a mental space of not thinking too much, but just enough, was part of the practice. 

The work surface for laying out the pattern consisted of two tables butted up against each other in the studio, taped off in a grid. This set up was the easiest to edit the pattern from, as I wouldn’t have to fight gravity or mess with sticky tack while working. It also meant I would be building the image on a horizontal plane, not the vertical one it was intended to be shown on. Also, due to the size of the space I had to work in, I could only get six feet away from it in any direction. The solution in testing tonal blends relied on using two techniques: taking photos with my phone from above and sliding my glasses down my nose to see if the colors blurred together right. 

Between cutting plates, sorting tile and laying out the pattern, I spent eighteen months building the portrait. It was the longest duration I’d ever spent on a single piece. It was also my first self-portrait. In the beginning I questioned whether this was the right image to bring forward. As someone who works with iconography, I wondered what would happen if I strayed into personal territory. Would I make myself a target? Did I want to discuss my perspective from a personal vantage point? At a certain point, I just trusted the impetus guiding me. There would be time for other art, but this piece needed to happen now. 

So it was with this portrait consuming nearly all my work space that I navigated the first chapters of what it is to live under a Trump/Pence administration. I took breaks to sand an AR-15 down to dust as a meditation on mortality, and to wrap hair around a section of fencing from New Mexico while contemplating the human systems used to dehumanize refugees. A few commissions came in and craft sale seasons too. After each intermission I’d return to her, and each time the portrait provided new challenges, both in its technical needs and the reflective personal work it offered.

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Through this process numerous pathways of understanding both the cultural value of the materials and the personal underpinnings of the image became clearer to me. The experience slowly revealed the formative and persistent role of resistance and resilience on a woman in American society.

I came to understand the woman in this portrait to be so much like the young women I’ve worked with. I see in her shades of my mother, who raised me an era she had helped fight to secure. I see a woman with greater agency over her life than her foremothers. I see a woman who knows what to take from life, what to leave and how to build a life out of the pieces that fit. 

Fitting in with the Squares by Niki Johnson

Fitting In With The Squares (Self-Portrait), Porcelain Norman Rockwell commemorative plates on wood, 67″x 47″, 2019

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Fitting in with the squares, by Niki Johnson.
67 inches long by 47 inches tall

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Fitting in with the Squares (Self-Portrait) is on view:

April 6th, 2019- June 5th, 2019- MKE Influencers, Var Gallery West in Milwaukee, Wisconsin 

July 13th, 2019- January 2020- Earth Piece, Everson Art Museum, Syracuse, New York 

 

 

 

Death of an AR-15

This summer I received a message on Facebook from a man who wanted to give me a gun.

Having only shot a handgun once in my late teens, walking away from the range nonplussed by the loud bang and kickback, I never developed an affinity for them. It was such and unusual offer. Reading his message brought up questions, so I sent a few his way.

His reasoning was pretty straightforward. With mass-shootings ravaging communities across our nation, the gun had become symbolic of something he didn’t stand for. This lifelong gun owner, raised in the thick of northern Wisconsin gun culture, hoped I could decommission it in a meaningful way.

He was offering me an AR-15 assault rifle.

As an artist who’s work does not shy from debate, I understood why he contacted me. However the gravity of this ask was not simple. In order to understand the rifle, I’d need to live with it, to sit in contemplation of the ramifications of its existence, as well as potential outcomes from granting it a death.

I seldom pause when considering materials, but like the signage from shuttered Planned Parenthood healthcare centers from my home state of Wisconsin, I sensed this offer deserved both time and reflection. My final decision hinged on whether or not I felt I could transform the object into a vote.

We set up a visit.

His home was welcoming.  The rifle lay in a case on the living room couch. Immaculately designed, lightweight and beautifully surfaced my tongue slicked with sick. A civilian version of the M-16, engineered to fire bullets that tear orange size chunks of flesh from the body in quick succession, and yet it’s curvature asked to be lifted and held to mine.

I left empty handed and shaken.

I said yes.


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In the state of Wisconsin, you don’t need a receipt for the transfer of ownership of a firearm, but we both thought it best to make one. A background check isn’t necessary either. This is commonly referred to as the “Gun Show Loophole”.


Between Bodies

I began this project with questions.

The answers arrived in the form of drawings.

As I began working though ideas, I soon realized handing the AR-15 off to a foundry– while it could help me avoid the uncanny feeling of being in the rifle’s proximity, would mediate the project too greatly. A corporeal exchange between my body and the gun was necessary. I had to use my hands to bring it down.

The AR-15 needed to be reduced to a powder reminiscent of what we all become. This project would be in part a ceremony.

As guns are designed to fit and respond to the human form, the AR-15, like all other weapons is engineered to mark, impede or kill another body whether human or animal. Guns don’t fire without a body. The AR-15 is designed to deliver a bullet that jaggedly carves through a body on impact. This inherent relationship shared by the assault rifle and the body spoke to why my body should be an active agent when cutting, sanding and grinding it to dust. Like preparing a loved one’s body for burial, my hands could grant a humane end to a inhumane design.

I embraced the many hours ahead as a meditation on mortality, power and transition.


To UnGun

Untucking the AR-15 from a hiding spot in the basement I brought the rifle upstairs and set it on the dining room table. My parents had dropped by on their last day visiting the Midwest. My stepdad, a retired Army veteran and rancher from Northern New Mexico, had agreed to help me learn how to break the the assault rifle down.

While I wanted to learn the steps, I also wanted to talk with someone I knew and loved about guns and gun culture. This time with William provided both. As soon as we got started the usual family banter began, but this time the debate was on if guns killed people or if people killed people. Mom weighed in from the couch holding their Chihuahua.

For a little over an hour we practiced. His hands moved across the weapon like a concert pianist disassembling and assembling its components. I on the other hand, fumbled through each step awkwardly handling each part like the city slicker pacifist I am.

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He was patient and good humored. I was over exuberant from nerves.

While I will always be ambivalent about the 2nd Amendment and William will support it, we found common ground. We agreed more mental health resources need to be readily available for all, as do mandatory background checks, and semi-automatic and automatic weapons really have no reason to be in civilian hands.

Relieved and giving hugs as they headed out, the AR-15 was in pieces.


From Live to Inert

Over the next four weeks, I set to work on the AR-15 in a small corner of the studio usually used for wet working ceramic and glass.

Work sessions began with checking the seams of my makeshift work tent made of draped plastic and rubber sheet to ensure they were still sealed. Then I’d attach my iPhone on to a tripod, put on safety gear and hit record.

While I’m pretty disciplined about documenting the stages of my projects, this was the first time I’d recorded a series of full length videos. I felt others may find meaning in watching the transformation an AR-15 from live to inert, whole to part, weapon to dust. I saw my studio as a sight of synthesis involved in a much larger conversation, and hoped these contributions would be of service in some way.

As hours passed at the bench, understanding how to unmake each part became easier. The chest strap needed to first be frayed by picking it apart with a needle before being snipped to fluff with scissors. Chopping 1/4″ segments from the steel barrel expedited the grinding process, leaving the grinding wheel cleaner as they generated less heat than larger chunks.

I focused on the material at hand as a strategy for overriding the physical discomfort of the process. I thought of the school yards, the synagogues, the mosques and the churches. I saw the faces of the survivors leaving night clubs, concerts and movie theaters. I recalled the voicemails shared by media outlets made by people hiding under desks, in classrooms or caught out in the open. I envisioned surgeons in theater and in waiting rooms talking with families. I sat in a space of reflection as the weapon shifted into sparks and powdered debris.

At the end of each session, I’d dust myself off and methodically collect as much of the debris as I could. Then I would write.

This video combines footage from the process with The Time It Takes– written word recorded during the project.  Full length segments are available here. Click here for a link to the text only.


To Dust

To Dust and the Revolution Print Series are the resulting physical artworks to come from the AR-15.

Niki Johnson

“To Dust”, Ground AR-15 assault rifle, glass box, 4”x 12”x 7”- Niki Johnson, 2018

Detail image of “To Dust” with box open

Niki Johnson

Detail of striation and layering of materials

Niki Johnson

Detail from side

Niki Johnson

“Revolution Prints- Plastics 1-3”, Remnants of the handgrip and buttstock of an AR-15 assault rifle on sanding discs- Niki Johnson, 2018

Niki Johnson

“Revolution Prints- Aluminum 1-9”, Remnants of the upper and lower receivers of an AR-15 assault rifle on sanding discs- Niki Johnson, 2018


Artist Statement

I’m wrapping up this post with my statement to place this project into my broader practice.

I create when I can see how the right alteration to a material will animate its meaning. In the studio I am regularly scaffolding upon techniques so I can incorporate unusual materials into projects, to shape the voice of each piece. As a woman, I am invested in addressing power structures, equality and identity.

Affective theory guides my decisions in how a piece is made and what it is made out of, as both are essential to the way art can communicate.

Simply, I sculpt for justice. I build in meditation. I work to better understand.

This year I am building a new body of work as a reflection on resistance. To Dust and American Tapestry: Border State are part of this new body and are representative of both the subject matter and visceral nature of what is to come. My intention is to exhibit the culmination of artwork made in the upcoming year in a solo exhibition by 2020.

Please visit my website to see more artwork and for further information.