Jan Johnson, artist (1943 - 2011)

By Pete Rockwell, November 2011

Johnson’s sculptures combine art, irony and politics.

Jan Johnson spent the last 40 or so years welding the detritus found in resource-extracted landscapes into objects and tableaux that, in one way or another, called the received ideas we share about life and the world into question. He had a knack for identifying the delusions, pretensions, self importances, and lies that are the spectacle of contemporary life. After a brief battle with cancer, Jan Johnson died on September 29; he was 68.

Johnson grew up on a 2000-acre cattle ranch 150 miles away from Custer’s Last Stand. He grew up with guns and horses and hard work and the self reliance that accompanies the rigours of rural life. Custer had led his men from the 7th US Cavalry into an ambush where they were all killed in what came to be called the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Johnson, a great appreciator of life’s ironies, related that almost a hundred years later, the same 7th US Cavalry was ambushed in Vietnam by the North Vietnamese Army when General Westmoreland decided to “engage the enemy” in the Ia Drang Valley. Many men died. Johnson, who led a logistics and transportation platoon during the war, said so many dead soldiers needed to be shipped back to the States that they ran out of body bags. It was then that he started having grave doubts about the efficacy of being in Vietnam in particular and of war, militarism, and mindless obedience in general. It was then that his deep animosity towards leaders who lead their people to injury, mutilation, and death was born.

After being honourably discharged, Johnson attended UC Berkeley at the peak of the anti-establishment fervour during the late Sixties. This added momentum to feelings forged in Vietnam. With two degrees, one in engineering and one in economics, Johnson moved to Ottawa, working for the Ministry of Transportation in a job that required him to travel all over Canada. The warmer climate of the West Coast—as well as the countercultural social climate he found in the rural area—enticed him to make a home in the backwoods of Sooke. There he lived with his wife Mary, worked as a freelance transport economist, and made art. He took part in numerous shows and was represented by Fran Willis’ gallery before it closed. In the last few years he’s been part of the Collective Works Gallery.

His house, hidden in rainforest foliage, is a visual cacophony of collected masks, statues, paintings, and odd objects (some from Africa and Asia). There are structural enhancements of mosaics, stained glass, and plaster body parts. A four-foot plaster ear listens over a wood stove in the kitchen. Very large nostrils protrude in one of the bedrooms. Thumb-tacked to Jan Johnson’s bathroom wall is a moisture-curled print of Custer’s aforementioned Last Stand, showing the general, surrounded by Indians and knee-deep in wounded, doomed, and dead men, firing maniacally with his six-shooters. 

His 2.5 acre “yard” is filled with 35-years-worth of items reclaimed and reconfigured from the detritus of nearby logging and mining operations and the Jordan River dump. There’s both rusting machine parts and a refrigerator tray-full of Barbie dolls. Along with these are his finished sculptures. The rustiest, moss-covered ones have been there the longest. Doll heads peek from the ferns, as do characters that easily could come from Kafka. The forest is a collaborator in this project. Jan called it the Alm Sculpture Garden.

A path leads through a wall of green to his studio. It’s filled with welding equipment and metalworking tools and it was here that Johnson created his take on our world, as well as worlds of his own. He’d wander the backyard looking for the right stuff from his materials stash and take it into the studio and fire up his torch. What better material than burnt steel to show a kind of existential truth revealed when you strip away the matrix of delusions and lies that surround us.

Two icons of opposite polarity recur when looking at the long haul of his work: Deities, and crowds of little people. Often in the same piece. While some of the deities refer to specific mythological figures, many have been re-deified to suit current times. The little people (sometimes depicted as herds of animals) seem to be busy either obeying (or at least persevering), or attacking, the deity. While no Marxist, Johnson’s work betrays a dialectic between power and weakness: Authority/Obey. Generals/soldiers. Leaders/ followers. 1%/ 99%.

“Market Goddess” for instance, depicts a four-armed Giacometti-ish figure standing on a wheeled platform, brandishing symbols representing the ongoing conquest of everything by unconstrained market forces, being pulled by much smaller figures, some with horns, like slave animals. Another piece, “Falling Axe,” depicts an icon of power (an axe head) being climbed and overwhelmed by a crowd of anonymous little beings (we gotta win some of the time). I’m guessing Jan would’ve been pleased to have seen the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

While Jan Johnson had serious things to say about the power dynamics of our society, there was always a kind of subtext of ironic humour underlying his seriousness. The humour of a sceptic, a hidden joke. And he expressed it in a way that always made you feel like you were included in a very exclusive and esoteric conspiracy. He had a kind of knowing “heh heh heh” if you said something that amused him, effectively including you in a brotherhood of jaundiced minds. If he was really amused, he would slip into a cigarette-inflected “hee hee hee.” I thought of him as the Kurt Vonnegut of metal sculptors. I think of him that way now.


The last show at Collective Works Gallery will be a retrospective show of Jan Johnson’s art, Nov 25-Dec 4, with an opening reception on Nov 25, 7-9pm. 1311 Gladstone Ave near Fernwood. 250-590-1345, wwwcollectiveworks.ca. Also see www.almsculpture.com. In memory of Jan, his family have set up an award at the Sooke Fine Arts show for best art with a political message.

Pete Rockwell, painter, photojournalist, and friend of Jan Johnson, believes that the contemporary artist must occupy territory somewhere between art and journalism.