Jess Johnson: Hex Nemesis

Jess Johnson’s complex and sensuous images use bold colour and a geometric bravura that conjure the glow and kinaesthesia of arcade video games and the ‘wormholes’ of speculative thought so key to good science fiction.

Her humanoids occupy a virtual reality comprised of patterns and ancient architectural forms that delineate the boundaries of these imagined spaces. Johnson is currently exhibiting in ‘The National’ at Carriageworks, ‘Dark Mofo’ at the Museum of Old and New Art, undertaking an International Studio & Curatorial Program residency in New York and presenting ‘Hex Nemesis’, an installation that will transform the Fremantle Arts Centre with wallpaper and video work collaborations with Simon Ward, born of her pieces which use acrylic paint, pen, fibre tipped markers and gouache on paper. ‘Hex Nemisis’ is the first solo show for the New Zealand-born artist in Western Australia, prepared from afar after leaving Melbourne in 2016. Her unfixed state appropriately reflects the warped psychic space she creates for others to have an encounter of a very special kind.

Jess Johnson, Municipal Wurm, 2015, acrylic paint, pen, fiber tipped markers and gouache on paper, 38.5 x 28cm. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia

While your images have distinct geometries and adhere to rules like the shape of letters and bodies, the mixture of all of these symbols is an order of your own creation. What do you apply to ‘corral the chaos’?
There is always something of a balancing act in my drawings, between order and chaos. I think that tension is reflected in my personal makeup. I’ve always had dueling desires to live a very structured life or smash everything to pieces. I’m fascinated by grand acts of self-sabotage and love reading about other people’s downfalls. It’s probably my most consistent and comforting daydream. I think I outwardly live a very structured life because I know how quickly it could unravel. I think even my very artwork is a constraint I’ve created for myself. Although in my recent drawings I can detect a brewing rebellion against these constraints. The rebellion is moving closer to the surface. My new imagery is more chaotic; scenes are layered on top of each other and time and gravity stretch out equally in all directions.

Jess Johnson, Worldweb Allthing, 2016, acrylic paint, pen, fiber tipped markers and gouache on paper, 101 x 74cm. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia

A possibility is that my recent drawings show the subterranean building blocks of the world, as opposed to the surface scenes above ground. I’m less interested in the mythology of the world or trying to ascribe a structure to its stories. I’ve been thinking of the recent drawings as being analogous to a computer data scroll printout; or revealing the engine room of a gigantic planetary organism. Maybe I have to get closer to the nucleus before I can smash it all up?

Why are you sensitive to the intersection of our physicality and inner worlds?
I think you can create physical environments that function as portals into internal worlds. Installations can act as decompression chambers that give you permission to go within yourself. All artworks are activated internally within the viewer – nothing actually happens on the outside. It’s the inside of my skull communicating to the inside of your skull through this clumsy medium of art. The artwork I’m most drawn to is very different to mine. I like drawing that is quite raw and unfiltered, emotionally honest (I’m almost repelled by work as structurally rigid as mine). Most often I’m looking at their work through Instagram, though I wish I could see it in galleries more. Some favorite artists are Caley Feeney (@sparklize_lemonade), Susan Te Kahurangi King, Raina Hamner (@rainerterrorr), Joe Roberts (@lsdworldpeace), and Anastasia Klose’s animal drawings (@anastasiaklose).

Jess Johnson, Total War, 2017, acrylic paint, pen, fiber tipped markers and gouache on paper, 101 x 74cm. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia

So, what is it like collaborating in video with Simon Ward? How do you complement or challenge one another?
Simon and I work well together because it’s easy and we don’t have to talk about things very much. Having to communicate an idea to another person which isn’t fully formed yet is like squeezing something through a mismatched hole. I don’t often have to articulate my ideas in language. It feels wrong. Sometimes speaking something aloud or shaping it into language can taint or kill it before it was ever grown in the first place.

Have you ever done any ‘field-work’ with shamans or ceremonies?
I’ve never done any shamanic ‘field-work’ outside my own experimentation. Growing up in NZ I ingested my fair share of psychedelics.

When I had a studio at Gertrude Street I spent a year listening to this podcast called ‘Psychedelic Salon’, which mainly played badly recorded lectures by Terence McKenna, an American philosopher and ‘psychonaut’. Terence often described his personal experiences on DMT. The interesting thing about it is that users describe this commonality of experience involving encounters with self-replicating geometric forms, architecture and machine elves with higher intelligence. His descriptions had such close parallels to the world I was drawing that I became really eager to try it for myself, to see if the worlds were one and the same. It all made me feel very middle age! The world melted away into fractals. I met a friendly elongated geometric cat. I remember a vague feeling of disappointment that the colours in that world were much brighter than mine.

Jess Johnson, Milxyz Wae, 2017, acrylic paint, pen, fiber tipped markers and gouache on paper, 101 x 74cm. Courtesy the artist and Fremantle Arts Centre, Western Australia

I receive a message every couple of weeks from people telling me my artwork looks like some drug experience they’ve had. Recently I’ve been emailing with a Shaman healer from Southern California who has invited me to attend his healing circle. There’s a group of them who go to this retreat and do large group healings with Ayahuasca. The whole notion makes me want to crawl out of my skin but putting myself in incredible uncomfortable situations also appeals to the masochist in me.

Fremantle Arts Centre
Until 16 July, 2017
Western Australia

The National, Carriageworks
Until 25 June, 2017
Sydney

Dark Mofo
8 to 21 June, 2017
Tasmania