Interview: Chris Johanson

Chris Johanson at Messezentrum Basel
[10. juli 2007]

Chris Johanson (b. 1968) organizes his colorful paintings in installations, where each painting connects with, and influences, the other. Working primarily with recycled materials, Johanson at the same time seems to be part of a major trend in the art world. For Johanson, though, this is not only a little fling with political correctness. Working with scavenged materials has been part of his artistic practice, since he began working as an artist. Represented various places at this years fair in Basel, and with a big painting installation at the Art Unlimited, the artist is a happy person: he has a mission, he would like to share with a broad audience.

Ai Weiwei (CN), Carl Andre (US), Kutlug Ataman (TR), Bluesoup Group (RU), Mel Bochner (US), Alighiero e Boetti (IT), Mathieu Briand (FR), Christoph Büchel (CH), Daniel Buren (FR), Alexander Calder (US), Cao Fei (CN), Bruce Conner (US), Sebastian Diaz Morales (AR), Omer Fast (IL), Claire Fontaine (FR), Carlos Garaicoa (CU), Katharina Grosse (DE), Kristjan Gudmunsson (IS), William Hunt (GB), Chris Johanson (US), San Keller (CH), Matts Leiderstam (SE), Ann Lislegaard, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer (MX), Marepe (BR), Allan McCollum (US), Tomas Saraceno, Superflex, Gert & Uwe Tobias (RO), Tatiana Trouvé (IT), Clare Woods (GB), a.o.

Chris Johanson: Untitled, 2007.

You present your paintings in a kind of installation – what is your idea behind that?

The point is, that everything is connected, and that is what I’m trying to show by presenting the paintings in this way. I’m pretty simple; I live a simple life, my brain is simple, and I like to make art that is pretty simple to understand – life is complex enough already. I like to present my information so I feel that anybody, whatever education they may have, can get involved into the art. I don’t want people to necessarily have an art degree to understand my work.

So it’s important for you, that your audience grasp your things?

Yes, it’s important that my art is understandable, on at least some levels, by the common person – and by all types of people…

You both work with abstract and figurative motives, can you explain why?

When you put some figures next to abstract, and you put all the paintings in a row, psychologically you can put the pieces together. For example the abstract, rectangular painting on the one side, has to do with society or systems of governments and socialization. But the one before that is totally abstract, it looks like after the Big Bang, when stardust made the planet. But before humans and animals came into the picture. It looks like a microcosm.

Chris Johanson: Untitled, 2007.

Do you see your paintings as belonging to one installation, or do you also see them separately?

I see them both ways, really. But I like it as a situation. I like the idea that this piece is going to be shown in a museum next year. That’s good to me, because that’s where I prefer to be seen.

So the museum is your favorite exhibition place?

Well, I would say books. I think books, public sculpture and museums are my favorite. Because it’s for more people. I like to do shows in galleries, but the dialogue is different.

You seem very concerned about the dialogue between your art works and your audience?

Absolutely, every time.

How can that relation be fruitful?

Because everything affects everything.

I also noticed that your work in itself reflects a kind of positive feeling – with the strong colors and so on – but then there also is this little dialogue balloon that says: ”We are the rulers”. What does that mean?

That’s about the stupidity of human nature. Because, it’s a bomber, you know. People are fighting all the time: we’re just like animals, but only more sophisticated, so in stead of running in to a bunch of elks and kill it if I were hungry, then because I’m a human I’m more likely to – if I get really irritated – grab a gun and kill a lot of people on a school, or nation to nation, race to race whatever… People are just fucked up!

Chris Johanson: Untitled, 2007.

But still you don’t make a dark and negative art?
No, not right now. But before I certainly did. But I want to be good in the world, and for the world. People have very different attitudes towards art, but this is really how I feel. I really think, that I have to be careful about what I put out in the world. My younger art was a lot more negative, because I was a lot more negative and reactionary. Now I’m mellower, but I know that you can use humor to get into people’s brains, and I want to get into people’s brains.

So do you feel, that you have a mission?

Yes, definitely. To be positive. And to make the world better, not worse. But because I’m a human being, then I am making the world worse. But I’m trying to be cool. I make art that is communicative, and when we make money from our art (Chris Johanson and his wife, red.), we give the money to different organizations, and we give art to art auctions, that are politically where we are. I also make political posters, and now I talk like this in an interview. I don’t know what else to do. I try to figure out more ways to be nice.

Do you as a painter have any references to art history?

Everything that has been made before is in my art. I didn’t go to a regular art school, but I went to a community college. I didn’t graduate from any school, but I took classes in sociology and psychology – I don’t remember a whole lot of it, but I know that’s inside my brain somewhere. Documentary filmmaking and photography, that’s my biggest inspiration, as far as art history goes. And reading…

You told me before about the nature element of your work. There seems to be quite a tendency right now in the art world, to be more concerned about recycling and the ecological systems?

I’m glad, that’s great! I’ve always done al my paintings on found wood, and I’ve always recycled, although there have been phases where I’ve been using new paper. But most of the time of being an artist, I’ve used found paper. I can use wood for one installation after the other, and then keep it. I get it out of the dumpsters, because I can’t create art on new wood, it makes me sick. If I went to a gallery or a museum, and I was supposed to have a show, and they wouldn’t give me recycled wood to work on, then I couldn’t do the show. I’m really in to it. I know it’s a control issue, but I get obsessive about it. That’s my kind of alchemy…. Seeing art that are made out of recycled materials, that has to get into people’s psyche, and if it’s like middleclass and rich people that see it, then it’s going into their lives and filter everything else. If everything that is negative affects people, then everything that is positive affects people. •

2 thoughts on “Interview: Chris Johanson

  1. Chris Johanson is the king of DIY art… and he’s in a film now, too. Who knew?! Its supposed to be sick; it has other artists in it as well, like Shepard Fairey, Geoff McFetridge and Thomas Campbell.

    It’s called Beautiful Losers.

    check it out at

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