The Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art presents Sue Johnson: Home of Future Things, a solo exhibition by the artist Sue Johnson that considers the cyclical nature of mass consumption. The exhibition features small-scale works on paper as well as floor-to-ceiling vinyl panels and decals that the artist has designed—transforming the gallery into the interior of an ideal, modern home. As the exhibition title suggests, Johnson envisions a world in which the home is nostalgic and familiar, yet, also reduced to an empty space existing simply to house various things.
Johnson's work makes various art historical allusions ranging from ancient Pompeiian mosaics and 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings to Dada and Pop collages. Despite spanning a vast expanse of time and place, these references share a common fascination with commodities that Johnson remixes through a 21st-century lens. Specifically, Johnson’s work is rooted in the tradition of 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings known as vanitas—images that contemplate the transience of life through the display of symbolic objects. Her process intentionally blurs the boundaries between the real and the imagined, the historical and the timeless, the hand-painted and the digital. What results is an immersive environment constantly tugging at our sense of what is real.
The exhibition opens with drawings from Johnson's Designs for Imaginary Shelves (2011-13) series. Unlike the shelves depicted elsewhere in the exhibition, these are notable for their emptiness, as well as their fanciful designs. Inspired by a Chinese-style red lacquer circular shelf owned by her Swedish grandfather and given to her as a child, these imaginary shelves are designs for building a modern cabinet of curiosities waiting to be filled.
The almost ascetic simplicity of these works on paper contrasts with the visual overload of Johnson's Ready-Made Dream (2013), an installation comprised of vinyl panels representing different rooms of a mid-century home wrapping the perimeter of the gallery. Johnson creates these scenes by digitally collaging images of objects sourced from popular magazines with elements she paints by hand. Her flattening of these distinctions creates a trompe-l'oeil effect in which the viewer is tricked into thinking what she is viewing is real and three-dimensional. Referencing Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Johnson presents a larger-than-life, prefabricated version of the “American Dream” built on the insatiable desire to consume. As one approaches the panels, the once-real objects and rooms begin to dissolve with varying degrees of pixelation. The inclusion of actual objects such as an avocado-green telephone and a paint-by-numbers painting next to seemingly real “flooring” and “rug” decals that the artist created for the exhibition further confuses the boundaries between reality and illusion.
While the bulk of Johnson’s imagery is sourced from the booming consumer culture of the post-WWII period, the exhibition serves as a contemporary version of the 17th-century vanitas—an all-encompassing tableau that contemplates our continued obsession with objects and the transience of life. The artist clips the objects from vintage magazines dense with advertisements and illustrations of various products deemed essential to the ideal American home. Johnson has become quite the collector in her own right, purchasing these magazines on websites like eBay, giving new life to old commerce.