Jess Johnson 
New Zealander born 1979

Jess Johnson creates fantastic worlds in installations and images that depict objects and figures in stage-like spaces. Curators at the National Gallery of Victoria have followed Johnson’s work for some time, and in 2013 approached the artist to commission an installation for the Melbourne Now exhibition. The resulting work, Outer head of the order (Vestibule incarnate), was subsequently acquired for the collection through The John McCaughey Memorial Prize Trust.

The installation takes up three walls, which Johnson paints with a geometric pattern before installing the ten drawings. This constructed environment also features a raised podium with an illuminated resin sculpture, creating an otherworldly space within the gallery.

Johnson’s drawing and installation practice is inspired by science fiction, mythological cosmology and comic books. She creates alternate realities in her unique idiosyncratic visual language. The subject of Outer head of the order (Vestibule incarnate) is the formation of a future civilisation. As viewers traverse the space, looking at the detailed drawings, they discover a secret world in which pyramids, faceless figures, chains, hooks, worms, pots and masks appear in dreamlike settings.

Each of the ten drawings has its own internal logic: within each one a coherent space is constructed through columns, doorways and architectural details that create a strong sense of symmetry and perspective. Some of the symbols and structures are reminiscent of Masonic architecture, one of the many references in Johnson’s iconographic repertoire. Text is also an integral element of her drawings, and in this series cryptic titles such as ‘Wurm Whorl Narthex’ and ‘Bloodfins & Whipwurm’ are woven into each image. They are part of the encryption, a kind of private language, which constructs a reality that is surreal and compelling.

Using pens, coloured markers and metallic paints, Johnson builds up the images in a meticulous manner. Her love of drawing and enjoyment of creating grids and patterns is palpable. The obsessive ornamentation of nearly every surface is something that has occupied the artist for many years. Since childhood she has been fascinated by the details and colours of comic books, and by their power to draw us into fictitious worlds. She began copying comic-book images at an early age, developing her understanding of repetitive forms as well as the graphic qualities of line-drawing and typography.

Born in New Zealand, Johnson has been based in Melbourne since 2002. Her work has been shown at public art institutions including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne, and Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne. In 2013 she undertook a residency in Tokyo, exhibited at Christchurch City Gallery, New Zealand, and was included in Primavera 2013: Young Australian Artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and Future Primitive at the Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.

Petra Kayser, Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)