Studio Visit: Bethany Johnson

Bethany Johnson is an artist living and working in Austin, Texas. Her work can be seen in PLEAT’s January 2019 exhibition as well as bethanyjo.com.

Please describe your work, both visually and conceptually. 

We Live on a Planet, the body of work included in this month's Pleat Gallery show, is a visual meditation on our natural world, as well as on our human attempts to capture, understand, and translate geological and weather phenomena. The works are document-like in scale and format, and through the collage of science book illustrations, photographic imagery, printer artifacts, office ephemera, and drawn interventions, a series of specimens are generated that feel both familiar and alien.

The images of We Live on a Planet, while compiled with a scientific earnestness and the orderliness of a specimen collection, remain unstable, slippery, and elusive of concrete categorization or interpretation. Otherwise grounding, stable horizon lines are flipped, duplicated, and stacked to generate at once serene and disorienting landscapes. Flat visual patterns and noise intersect with deeply spatial components, creating compositions that are both artifact and invention, image and diagram, visual solution and perceptual problem. This reveals a subjectivity, tenderness, and subtle anxiety of the body of work, despite the cool tidiness and data-like regularity of the collection’s format. 

This body of work is consistent with my studio practice as a whole, which is always in some way an exploration of the relationships between nature and measurement, documentation, and representation.

What motivates you in terms of your artistic practice? 

When I was a young art student I was advised that a studio practice that one doesn't enjoy isn't sustainable long-term. Conversely, I think sometimes as artists we get the message that intellectually rigorous work begins with a pure and urgent concept, leading us to the resulting processes and materials. However, I've found that this can result in joyless, awkward experiences with making, which I've found confirms the first point: that to sustain a studio practice, the process of making must be pleasurable. For me, my artistic successes are found when I am able to find a marriage between interesting conceptual content, with a process of making that irresistibly draws me into the studio every day. I love paper, I love tidy, analog drawing, I love repetitive mark-making and pattern. On a most basic level, my motivation is an engrossed pleasure, both for myself and (ideally!) my viewers.

Who are your influences? What role do they play in your work? 

When I have ten seconds, I tend to quip that my work is a cross between of Agnes Martin and Vija Celmins (grids and worlds, systems and spaces). These influences are a bit more visually apparent in my drawings than in these collage works, but I also refer to these two women more generally as models of a certain calmness, steadiness of vision and self-assuredness in an artistic practice overall. 

Otherwise, there are a ton of other artists I love! Artists I've been looking at lately include Abdelkader Benchamma, Brion Nuda Rosch, Gertrud Preiswerk, Delaney Allen, Jim Verburg, Saul Becker, Michael DeLucia, Anni Albers, Marcela Magno, Andreas Gefeller, Mary Temple, Mario Kolaric, Victoria Burge, Mark Lombardi, Yoonmi Nam, and Charles Gaines. 

How has social media impacted your studio practice? 

I've certainly been using social media as a tool to share my work, discover others' work, and keep up with various art events and calls. I am always happy to have new tools to discover what others are making. Other than that, though, social media doesn't have a profound impact on the making of my work. That said, there is a sense of glitchy, rolling juxtaposition of imagery in my collage work that is at least partially inspired by and/or referential of digital and online environments more generally.