Sarah Best Johnson
AB: So tell me about your current body of work.
SBJ: I was centering around religion there for a while but now I am kind of moving more in to the infantilization of women and the sexualization of children. To me they feel like they go hand in hand. I have recently developed this obsession with bows. I have been slapping bows on everything, glitter, goulash makeup… these hyper sexualized positions. I recently got some colored light bulbs and started lighting these sculptures with colors to make them even more bizarre and unnatural. I moved away from the human figure about 8 months ago and I’ve just been working with the dolls. All of them are based off of images from obstetrics books, I took pictures and started mimicking some of the medical abnormalities in the dolls and painting from them. I didn’t necessarily want to horrify the viewer and I felt like if I actually used those direct images that it would be just gross. I didn’t want to gross people out, but I did want it to be gripping in a way. So I started using the dolls to soften the blow.
AB: So you feel like its less grotesque because they are not real people. So how do these images begin for you? Do you have an image in your head about a specific composition or does it begin with a concept?
SBJ: You are making work pretty much throughout the entire day even if you’re not actually making anything. You are constantly thinking about what you are doing and what you are going to be doing. I think a lot of these images just come in to my head and I have to find a way to make them happen. A lot of things end up changing depending on what kind of material you can get. A lot were just happy accidents in a way. I slap bows on them or some glitter.
AB: So they arrive through the process.
SBJ: Yea they are constantly changing.
AB: I know that you have been working with a lot sculptures. Are all of these paintings coming from references to that?
SB: Usually I make these sculptures then I go light and photograph them and paint from those. What I have been struggling a lot with lately is how to have the sculptures stand alone because they seem to conceptually fall apart by themselves. The paintings feel more complete than the sculptures. Drawing is a huge part of the process and I am not a sculptor so I feel a lot of the sculptures just look really amateur. So I am turning them in to paper dolls. I am going to blow them up draw from them and add glittered clothing to them.
AB: So you are making them in to paper dolls as a way to begin a painting like the sculptures or they are going to be a piece in themselves?
SBJ: Yea I wanted to find a way to have the sculptures stand on their own so in that way they are still drawings mainly but standing up kind of like sculptures. I don’t know, I can’t get past this idea of having a nursery in a way. I wanted to somehow make that work.
AB: Do you plan on displaying those with your thesis?
SBJ: I am hoping so, yea. I am wanting them to be like actual paper dolls. I want them to have the little feet on them and stand up. I am playing with the idea of them being interactive, putting velcro on some of the clothes and you could change them up. So they are definitely going to be more like sculptures. I am trying to decide if I want them to be interactive.
AB: That will be interesting to see how those interact with these really big paintings. I know you said you were using dolls to soften the blow but they still feel heavy. They have an intensity to them.
SBJ: I still want them to have intensity. That one is probably the least gruesome out of all. I have my two faced one over here.
AB: Just heads or will there be bodies attached?
SBJ: This is the only one I have painted bodies.
AB: Does it matter to you that people see these and understand that you are talking about the infantilization of women and the sexualizing of children?
SBJ: I think for the most part I am just trying to make paintings that look interesting. I mean all of my favorite artists I couldn’t care less what their work is about. I just love it because of what it is. I guess I don’t really care. I don’t always understand it, myself.
AB: How do you deal with any insecurity you might have about your work?
SBJ: Usually if there is a particular painting that is not going well I just start drawing. I mean right now I have four different paintings that are open. If one is not going well then I move to another. I go back and forth between painting and drawing. You are almost always insecure about what you are working on.
AB: I know before you were combining drawing and painting in your work. Now they seem to be completely separate. Is there a reason why they are separate now?
SBJ: Over the past summer I was doing the painting and drawing and I had the whole summer to just work. The first doll I made was this red one. I put polyurethane on it and something about the shine…I was looking at a paintings by Mark Dargas. He makes these hyper sexualized paintings of women with honey poured on their face. I thought about chocolate baby. It started with my trying to do my own version of that. I was trying to do a hyper-realistic version. It seemed like it would be scarier and weirder if I could get it as realistic as possible.
AB: Its funny because when you applied to graduate school you were making somewhat realistic paintings. It seems like you went through this middle stage of drawing with painting and then went right back to where you began. Its funny how we end up where we started. Who are you looking at right now?
SBJ: A lot of the artists I am looking at, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell. One of them is Travis Louie. I am always thinking about Anne Harris and you can’t see any of that in this work anymore. I am thinking about Rubens and Pontormo, Caravaggio…I am thinking about a lot of those religious paintings.
AB: So you were saying religion is no longer playing role in this work?
SBJ: I think maybe not necessarily religion but maybe more southern culture. A lot of my friends are having kids left and right and they are buying these enormous bows. Its all pinks and girly so I think maybe its more influenced by the bible belt.
AB: Yea well gender has also played a big role in your past work and I can see it here too. I think that’s also what you are talking about with these bows…this is pink so this is for a girl…ultra feminine.
SBJ: Overly feminine, yea.
AB: So you are poking fun at that.
SBJ: Yea, poking fun and critiquing those ideas. Of course typical male standards of beauty and what we are instilling in our children as….
AB: Yea that this is male this is female and there can be no in between.
SBJ: Yea and also when you should become that female and how far you should take that. Maybe that stems from my now childhood insecurities. When I was 13 I wasn’t allowed to buy makeup. I see 8 year olds buying contour brushes and expertly applying make up. This child is 8 years old and is overly sexualized. That to me is what is terrifying and horror is something that is really important to me.
“This child is 8 years old and is overly sexualized. That to me is what is terrifying and horror is something that is really important to me. ”
AB: I bet you hate little kids beauty pageants?
SBJ: Its awful! Its also hysterical, but its so terrifying that it makes you cringe.
AB: Do you think this body of work will continue after your thesis show or do you see yourself moving on to something different?
SBJ: I have an inkling that at some point I’ll go back to human figures….I don’t know I’m having so much fun with the dolls.
AB: I remember you were posing people a lot when you were painting the figure so it is probably a lot easier for you to use dolls because you can position them however you want.
SBJ: I can get weird. I don’t have to worry about making people uncomfortable. When I was painting the figure I wanted to do so many things but I also didn’t want to make my models uncomfortable, which is why I started using myself. With these I can do whatever I want. What was interesting to me also was that this is a child’s play thing and there is this innocence that a lot of people are obsessed with in a way and then to just kind of destroy that innocence in way….maybe that’s why I like these because I can do that without assaulting the viewer.
When I was finding some of these images in obstetrics books I was crying. If I tried to replicate that with a child I would get too emotional. It would hurt to much. Yet it was still so important to me, these tossed aside figures. I still wanted to do it just no in a way that would completely destroy me.
AB: It references it so it still carries the weight, but yet its a toy so it softens the blow.
So how long have you lived in Memphis now?
SBJ: It will be 2 and a half years, 3 years in August.
AB: I know you moved here from your home town so you don’t have much to compare it to but how do you feel about the Memphis art community? Do you think being in Memphis affected your identity of yourself as an artist?
SBJ: I think so. Not even just the city but the program is really diverse. That was not something I was around before. I grew up in the church and it made me very sensitive to everything.
AB: What are your plans after you graduate?
SBJ: We are aiming to try to move to New York. We are going to try everything to make that happen while we are still young. Memphis is definitely up and coming. I would recommend that people move to Memphis. It gets a bad rap but its a pretty great place to live because its a city that is valuing art more and more. I have really loved a lot of the people I have met here and I have gotten a lot from the program.
See more of Sarah’s work at http://www.sarahbestjohnson.com/