When she was growing up in Canada, long before she became an artist, Sarah Anne Johnson went to her grandmother’s house every day after school. In Johnson’s memory, her grandmother “spoiled and loved me tons.” But there was also a strange undercurrent or two.
“Even at a young age,” Johnson said, “we could still tell she was not like other grandmothers. But my brother and I loved that about her.”
As Johnson would come to learn, there was a good reason for that. Two decades earlier, her grandmother had sought treatment for postpartum depression – and had become an unwitting participant in Project MKUltra, a series of grievously unethical mind-control experiments done at the behest of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The program included mind-altering psychedelic drugs, sensory deprivation and other forms of psychological torture.
This did not come to light until The New York Times broke the story in 1977, a year after Johnson was born. Johnson’s grandmother was one of the plaintiffs in litigation that would not be settled until 1988, two years before her death.
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That’s the backdrop to “House on Fire,” the most arresting installation in Johnson’s “Wonderland” exhibit, showing at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum through May 5. “House on Fire” consists of a series of sculptures and altered photos reflecting her grandmother’s state of mind as she thought she was descending into madness. The centerpiece is an elaborate dollhouse with flames coming out of the roof and each room inside portraying altered states of reality.
“House on Fire” was every bit as difficult and cathartic for Johnson to pull together as you’d expect.
“I actually started trying to work on it while I was in college,” said Johnson, 38. “But I had to stop because I just did not have the emotional maturity, technical ability or conceptual chops to make the work as sophisticated as it needed to be. When I finally got to where I could work on it, I’d have mini-breakdowns because it was so emotional and hard to do. I’d call my mom up crying, asking if I should even do it at all. ‘You know,’ my mom said, ‘Grandma gave up the family’s privacy to make sure this kind of atrocity would never happen again.’
“So me making work about it helps bring awareness,” Johnson said. “I think she’d be proud of that.”
“House on Fire” is weighty enough that it would more than stand on its own. But it’s only one of eight installations in “Wonderland,” an ambitious mid-career retrospective of Johnson’s 12-year body of work. Taking up both floors of CAM, “Wonderland” stands as the museum’s boldest and possibly best exhibition to date.
The lighter side of “Wonderland” is on the first floor, starting with “Tree Planting,” a 2005 photo series that is part of the Guggenheim Museum’s permanent collection; “The Galapagos Project,” a 2007 collection of photos and sculptures of volunteers working in the Pacific Ocean island chain; and “Arctic Wonderland,” fantastically altered pictures from a 2009 photography residency Johnson did above the Arctic Circle. (One of the Arctic photos appeared in an earlier CAM show, 2013’s “Currents”).
The darker work is downstairs, especially “House on Fire.” That’s also where you’ll find “Wonderlust,” a series of sexually intimate photos and sculptures radically altered by the artist. Not surprisingly, most of the show’s other works are in the shadow of “House on Fire” – or were done in response to it.
“What happened to my grandmother is something I’ll continue coming back to every few years,” Johnson said. “Not constantly, because it’s too hard. After I’d spent two-and-a-half years on it, I needed an adventure to focus on rather than myself. ‘I need to go to the Arctic,’ I said, and I did. ‘Wonderlust’ was similar. I wanted to make something risky and hard to talk about. I’m always telling my students that artists need to put ourselves at risk, be vulnerable, talk about taboos. I don’t want my doctor or accountant taking risks, but artists can and should and must do this. So I put myself to the test by making work about something that’s difficult for me to talk about.
“And now,” she added with a laugh, “I don’t want to talk about it. I expected more odd reactions to ‘Wonderlust,’ but there’s way crazier stuff on TV. People do say they thought it’d be ‘sexier.’ But intimacy is not necessarily sexy. Generally, when men make work about this, it tends to be about the sex and it’s all surface, glossy, shiny, well-lit. Women, also generally speaking, tend toward intimacy – not so much the sex, but the before and after. This woman, anyway. I’m trying to show what it feels like, sensations, insecurities going through my mind.”
The roots of “Wonderland” coming to CAM go back nearly a decade, when curator Steve Matijcio first met Johnson in Winnipeg and debuted “The Galapagos Project” there. They’ve kept in touch since, and CAM entered the mix as a potential site for a career retrospective when Matijcio was working at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem.
Matijcio has since moved to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, but CAM remained the venue for “Wonderland.” Johnson was involved in its presentation to an unusual degree for an artist, spending more than three weeks in Raleigh working on the set-up.
“It was not a conventional process,” Matijcio said. “Sarah has a very particular, pronounced vision. So she built a maquette of the entire space, cut photos down to size and worked with a scale model.”
One of the most striking and physically imposing pieces in the show is “Fireworks,” a large asteroid-looking creation that hangs from the ceiling and looms over a model ship. Part of the impact comes from its placement; “Fireworks” is hidden behind a wall, and you don’t see it until you’re close to it.
“‘Fireworks’ is just such a technical feat, and it speaks to her practices,” Matijcio said. “Sarah is not about pristine finishes or making anything look mechanical or manmade. There’s tactility, handmade qualities, mistakes and triumphs all collected into one piece. There’s a violence as well as great beauty. That human imprint is very true of all of her work.”
Johnson will return to CAM March 19-21 to perform “Dancing With the Doctor” live with three other dancers – a physical re-enactment of some of the themes from “House on Fire.” She has other projects in the works, too, including a giant mural in Toronto and a photo exhibit based on pictures she’s taken at music festivals over the years.
But Johnson’s most serious next project is another “House on Fire” spinoff. With a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, she’s going to turn rooms from the “House on Fire” dollhouse into full-scale film sets and bring them to life.
“I’ve been plotting that for five years, and it’s gotten quite major in my head,” she said. “You daydream too long and it just gets bigger and bigger. I think it will take a couple of years to build each set and figure out action and costumes. I think I want to do the editing myself, too, which means that’s something I’ll have to learn. But I’m too much of a control freak to give any of it away.”
Where: Contemporary Art Museum, 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh
When: Through May 5
Hours: 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; noon-5 p.m. weekends; open until 10 p.m. first Friday of the month
Cost: $5 general admission; free on First Friday and always for members, children 10 and under, N.C. State College of Design students, faculty and staff.
Info: 919-261-5922 or camraleigh.org