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Features / August 10, 2015

Sarah Anne Johnson: Sobey Finalist Slideshow

Winnipeg-based artist Sarah Anne Johnson, a finalist for this year’s Sobey Art Award, creates photographs of past experiences, blurring fact and fiction.
Sarah Anne Johnson, <em>Hospital Hallway</em> (still), 2015. © Sarah Anne Johnson. Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery and Julie Saul Gallery, New York. Sarah Anne Johnson, Hospital Hallway (still), 2015. © Sarah Anne Johnson. Courtesy Stephen Bulger Gallery and Julie Saul Gallery, New York.

Sarah Anne Johnson, born in Winnipeg in 1976 and based in that city, creates photographs that run counter to photojournalism. Rather than attempting to capture a particular narrative moment, Johnson’s images point to the impossibility of directly imparting memories, instead using series of images that work together to evoke the nuances of group experiences and particular locations. Johnson elides straightforward photographic depiction and often masks portions of her images with gold leaf or paint, scratches into the photographic surfaces and introduces maquettes and other whimsical elements.

Several of Johnson’s distinct photographic series were created after notable trips and experiences. One of Johnson’s best-known and earliest series is Tree Planting, which depicts a summers of the rough-and-ready titular work, popular among students and young workers during summer stints. Some of the Tree Planting images depict figurines created from baked and painted Sculpty, while others are photographs of the real tree planters and landscapes. It’s a blending of fact and fiction that manages to confuse the distinction between the two—in many ways, the sculptural replicas appears the more accurate representation of the experience.

Arctic Wonderland (2010–11) similarly troubles the representation of experience. After a 12-day trip to the Arctic Circle, Johnson began to scratch into and paint over her images of Northern landscapes, giving the already sublime scenes a distinctly magical feel. At times, though, something else creeps in: a sense of foreboding, as in the pictures where Johnson introduces enormous, monochromatic buildings. As with these looming structures, a tinge of the melancholic often settles into Johnson’s work, suggesting a warning just beyond the camera’s frame.

Johnson completed her BFA at the University of Manitoba and her MFA at Yale University. This is Johnson’s second time as a finalist for the Sobey Art Award; her work also won the inaugural Grange Prize in 2008. Johnson has exhibited at the Fondation Cartier, the Guggenheim Museum and the National Gallery of Canada, among other venues.