Installation view of Helen Johnson <em>Foundation</em> 2021–22 from <em>Judy Watson &amp; Helen Johnson: the red thread of history, loose ends</em> installation at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne 2022. Commissioned with the assistance of The Balnaves Foundation 2020–21. Courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne<br/>
© Helen Johnson and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. Photo: Andrew Curtis

Helen Johnson

Helen Johnson
(b. 1979, Melbourne. Lives and works in Melbourne)

Helen Johnson is a painter whose practice addresses and reflects on cultural identity in Australia, in particular the ways that imagery has played a role in the construction and obscuring of national histories since colonial invasion. While grounded in figuration, her approach to painting often employs pluralism and openness to challenge the privilege of the subject.

Foundation, 2021–22, is a large-scale, double-sided work that draws on imagery produced around the time of Australian Federation, in the years immediately before and after 1900. In this era, it was popular in the press to portray the newly federated Australia as a young white woman, often depicted seeking guidance from an older, patriarchal figure such as Sir Henry Parkes. Forming the literal foundation of the work are the faces of four members of the first parliament of federated Australia, with cartoon-like speech bubbles drawing on the Hansard records of that first sitting. One face, depicting politician Samuel Winter Cooke, is recorded as saying, ‘We must do our best to see that Australia remains as a possession for the white man, and the white man only’. 

Hung loosely and disruptively amid the Joseph Brown Collection at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Foundation calls into question our understanding of Australian history. As Johnson suggests, the work is ‘less about images previously thought incontestable, more about a nationalist project that chooses not to look at its own underpinnings’.

Johnson received a Bachelor of Fine Art in Painting (Honours) from RMIT, and a PhD (Fine Art) from Monash University in 2014. Recent solo exhibitions include Judy Watson & Helen Johnson: The Red Thread of History, Loose Ends, a Balnaves Foundation exhibition with Judy Watson at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, and Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne (2022); Pieces of Work at Château Shatto, Los Angeles (2021); and Agency at Pilar Corrias, London (2019). Johnson’s work was also included in the inaugural Melbourne Now exhibition in 2013. Her work is held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; Artbank, Waterloo; Buxton Collection, University of Melbourne; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; KADIST, Paris; Kistefos Museum, Norway; Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney; National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery; Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; Tate Modern, London; Yuz Museum, Shanghai; and more. Johnson is currently undertaking a Master of Art Therapy at LaTrobe University, Melbourne.