Sean M. Johnson is an artist working in photography, video, and performance based in Boston, MA. Born in Providence, RI, Johnson received his BFA from the University of Rhode Island (2004) and MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (2008). His work has been exhibited in locations as far reaching as Tel Aviv, Barcelona, Berlin, New York City, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Provincetown. Johnson received a 2010-11 DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service Grant) to research post-WWII male identity and gender issues in Berlin. Alongside his studio practice, Johnson is the Founder and Executive Director of the Boston LGBTQIA Artist Alliance and Gallery. Johnson’s work was recently featured in “Beards: An Unshaved History” by Kevin Clarke (2013) and Mascular Magazine (Issue 7 2013).
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I first met Sean in graduate school at SMFA and was instantly drawn to his work. I have followed Sean’s often personal investigations, and have been so pleased to see how they have continued to develop, bringing together beautiful imagery with an intimate context. When I first saw images from his recent “Search for Home” series, I knew I wanted to find out more about this new body of work. We met at his home studio to discuss this series and the evolution of his ideas and practice.
Andrea Evans: Sean, thank you so much for having me by to talk about your work. One of the first things I want to touch on is something I’ve been thinking a lot about since our studio visit. In our conversation, we talked about your recent thoughts regarding the question of an artist’s purpose, what an artist can strive to do with or through their work, and how you were beginning to define this for yourself. Could you elaborate on this, and how these ideas are influencing the direction of your work?
Sean M. Johnson: This has been a question that I’ve asked myself many times over the past few years since leaving graduate school. I feel that these institutions help structure you to be a certain type of artist (an exhibiting artist in a traditional gallery space), but sometimes forget about alternative spaces and different ways to approach art making in a non-traditional form. I’ve always found myself more comfortable in a more alternative space situation. These spaces usually have less rules, expectations, and focus more on getting your work out there.
Thinking about these alternative spaces, and the many roles that I play, I was able to analyze my role as an artist. I’ve always seen myself as someone who enjoys relating to others by finding a commonality. After analyzing the many roles I’ve created for myself, I see myself as a connector; someone who finds people or topics and puts them together. I do this action in the many facets of my life, from being an artist, educator, event planning, starting up a gallery, to meeting people in my many different social networks. I always get so much happiness and pleasure when I see people connect in many different ways to the new people or ideas that I’ve introduced them to.
This whole idea about connecting is shown in more of my current work. I’ve been looking at the connection between male-to-male relationships, focusing more on an idea of a lack of intimacy between them. There seems to be a distancing or some type of “blocker” that hasn’t allowed these types of relationships to flourish. This struggle has preoccupied me for quite some time, and I’ve wanted to understand it better by tackling this topic with my own work. I’ve been thinking about how to approach this topic by inserting myself (in more performative or video based pieces) to act as a catalyst, or using a more constructed, symbolic and metaphorical approach (photographs) to challenge this idea.
What I hope to obtain by creating this work is to find a connection between the viewer, this topic, and to create a dialog surrounding the idea of intimacy. I have daydreams about people feeling so touched or inspired by these pieces, and having a conversation that moves each other, taking away a greater understanding.
AE: Can you talk more about how you determine what form these different ideas take: whether they are most effective as a still photograph, a video, or a performance?
SMJ: This determination has been a process of experimentation, many mistakes, and finally seeing what works best! My earlier photographic pieces that were very personal and either included myself or very specific people (my mother for example) were more challenging and harder to access for the viewer. I felt this way because these pieces had little to no entry point for the viewer to enter. They either had to know very specific information, or I had to lay out all this information to them, and at that point, it became rather labor intensive for someone to explore the image.
I took these lessons, and started playing with figures that had a more vague identity, focusing on an action or role to play in the image. By doing this, the viewer can focus on the symbolism of the actions, rather than who the person is in the image. It became less about the figure, and more about how they interact with other figures in the image and the space around them.
When I want to include myself in a piece, I feel that more performance and video based works are best for this. I’ve been thinking about my purpose, and seeing myself as a catalyst, or a tool to stimulate a response, which I feel performance and video work gears towards. There is an immediate response that I really enjoy, and being able to see people respond in an honest way. These responses are great for seeing a clear and honest view to our humanity, breaking down there barriers that we put up. I love seeing these little magical moments of who we are that we hide all the time when out in public or interacting with people.
AE: I’ve been really taken with your work ever since I first encountered it in grad school, for its generous view of intimacy shared between men, its exploration of masculinity and sexual identity, not to mention the sheer beauty of the images that you create. I remember very distinctly the first time I saw one of your “Beard Love” videos, in which you and other men rub your beards together. Each video is different, yet they all reveal these touching moments of both physical and emotional contact between men. This has been a recurring theme in much of your work. How have these ideas evolved and grown through different bodies of work?
SMJ: The Beard Love series started at strictly physical contact between men, the brushing of each other’s bodies, looking at how they existed in space, and seeing the tension build up between the characters. These actions and different scenarios that the men were put in created a space that was more focused on just the action, not really taking the rest of the scene into consideration.
As I have moved away from the Beard Love series, I’ve wanted to focus on the actions still, but build up more of a scenario where the action takes place, developing the dialog between the bodies and the space that they are in. The scenes started to create more of a dream or fantasy world that I was able to construct, painting a better image of the actions that these men were executing. If you were to use a plain space, with no distinction as to where it was, you may focus on just the action itself, and the figures in it, but when you add a space, or different elements to it, it become more of a question of “Why are there here?” “What are they doing in this space?” or even “What does their actions have to do with the setting?”. I feel that I’m able to create a more elaborate image, broadening the dialog that can come out of these images.
I’ve also wanted to push away of the more sexual gestures or actions that can be stigmatized with the earlier works I’ve made. I’ve been thinking about the erotic and fetish aspects of the Beard Love pieces and how I can use elements of it while not having it so sexually suggestive.
AE: Some of your more recent work shows an interest in ritualistic and healing gestures. Has this been part of your work all along, or do you see it as something new that is just now rising to the surface?
SMJ: I’ve always been interested in this idea of healing or cleansing. I haven’t explicitly used these gestures in the past because I always felt that I didn’t have a connection to it due to my lack of religious upbringing. I’ve always had a spiritual side to my beliefs, but I never really applied them to my work. With a recent resurgence of these more spiritual beliefs in my life, I’ve learned to tap into them more and think about how I can apply them to my work.
Over the past few years, I have been looking into a lot of AA Bronson’s newer work and seeing the dialog between my ideas and what he has created. I’ve had the great opportunity to meet him many times and discuss many topics with him and found it to be quite stimulating. This exposure, and also focusing on my own self discovery and well being, has given me a stronger focus on my spiritual self, looking at the many ritualistic sides of my life that I use to heal and repair myself, but also how other religious and spiritual communities do as well.
AE: The video “Hold” is an incredibly generous and powerful piece. In it, you are barely visible (we only see the back of your head), as you are being held by another man. While we have no idea of what is going through his mind during the 10 minutes that he is holding you, it is clear that it is a very emotional and moving gesture for him. As viewers, we certainly have the experience of being witness to this extremely private and intimate moment. Can you tell us more about this piece, as well as how you navigate this delicate line between private and public as you document shared moments, spaces, and experiences of this nature?
SMJ: The Hold piece came out of my initial project proposal that I submitted for my DAAD Fellowship. I was looking at how German men handled and navigated through their interactions with other men in relation to the historical context of WWII and the War Journals documented in the book series “Male Fantasies” by Klaus Theweleit. I was curious about how German men presented themselves, and interacted in intimate situations. To do this, I had to first gain a form of trust, but also understand how they processed their thoughts and feelings. The man in the Hold video was very accommodating, and wanted to be part of my work after getting to know me. We had a dialog about what I was looking to create, and I wanted him to be able to access any feelings or emotions that he wanted while I let him hold me.
I wanted to focus on how intimacy and the closeness of two bodies interacting with each other allowed barriers to be broken down, bringing forth a truth about one’s feelings or emotions. I believe the model and I had a good connection, and we had a form of trust with each other that was understood, which made the documentation process of the piece flow much easier.
I’ve always wanted to be able to create work like this, but being able to get someone to open up the way that he did is very challenging. The idea of being documented while trying to access these feelings or emotions can be quite difficult. I think just the specific situation, the right time and place, and the bond we had between each other allowed for this piece to be more successful.
I think the hardest thing is if you want to do something like this, is that you need to have the trust and respect between you and the people you are interacting with, making a more authentic piece together. I try not to script my creations too much, as I don’t want it to seem forced, and I constantly try to create scenes that comfort or ease those who are participating (In the Hold video, we were on a very comfortable bed, I had soft relaxing music on in the background, and we had tea beforehand to ease any anxieties or nerves).
I constantly strive to place the intimate, more private interactions into a public domain. I think the use of YouTube and other online forums has allowed for this to happen in a more public place, but also keeping it private and easily accessible.
AE: I’m interested in this idea of using yourself as a tool to access different kinds of interactions with other people, or as a vessel within which someone else may share their emotions. This definitely seems to connect with your interest in healing, and in giving something to another person without asking anything in return. What are your thoughts about this?
SMJ: I’ve always considered myself a selfless person, always focusing on the needs of others before mine. What I’ve learned by doing this over time, is that you cannot take on other people’s challenges or difficulties in life, but you can act more as a temporary vessel or catalyst that stimulates a dialog or interaction, allowing emotions, feelings, or thoughts to be provoked, clarifying any troubles one might have. This is a very challenging and delicate path to take because it can go array quite quickly if not handled with care.
The way that I’ve allowed myself to act as a vessel is to show my vulnerable or intimate/private side of me to be seen in a public sphere. This action allows people to see past the walls that we put up, and show a relation to their own personal self in me. Many people do this in other forms to gain a sympathy or empathy towards characters such as in film, music, words, etc. I want people to see that we all have a commonality in each other, and that it is ok to feel or emote about these topics I explore, and that it is ok to do so. I want to break down all these barriers that we put up, and let us all see that we have a commonality in each other.
I don’t worry if I put myself at risk of potentially being hurt, but being able to see someone open up, or acknowledge something they haven’t, brings tears to my eyes, and also gives me a glistening moment of hope for them to improve their own lives. I know that might sound intense, but there is something amazing about seeing someone go through an “aha” moment, and see them put all the puzzle pieces together to better their own life and being part of it.
AE: I have been so excited by your new body of work “Search for Home.” Not only are the photographs simply gorgeous images, there seems to be a slightly different approach in the series. The pieces appear to pull from many different influences: religious imagery, romantic landscape painting, even a kind of mysticism, folklore, or mythology, and yet the work remains quite open-ended for interpretation. There is a narrative there, but there’s a lot of room for your viewers to extrapolate on the meaning. I’m curious to learn how this series came into being and the ideas that frame it.
SMJ: Like many of my ideas, I was probably on a long walk, or in the shower pondering about life, when imagery hits me. I piece together thoughts and my very obscure and vivid imagination. At the time of this project, I recently put together a Kickstarter to go out West and work with a few fellow queer artist friends who create work in a similar vein as me. The thing that I really wanted to approach was their connection to the earth that I never really approached. Most of my work seemed to dwell in the domestic setting, and I was ready to get out of these more sterile or contrived scenarios and move to a more open scene. The woods in the Pacific North West seemed perfect.
As I scouted a friend’s farmland outside of Portland, Oregon, I was reminded of my past and fascination with Mysticism and Fantasy as a child. The woods spoke to me as a place where reality couldn’t happen, the trees were covered with heavy moss, the rivers flowed clear, and the air was crisp, and smelt of sweet citrus leaves and pine. I thought about all the characters I played with my brothers, the video and board games, my geeky side that was engrossed with playing Magic The Gather, and all these other Dungeons & Dragons related material. I told myself from this point on that I had to embrace it! I was forgetting such a crucial element of my childhood that shaped the way that I think and create my work.
Combing this idea of fantasy and mysticism, I looked toward my peers that I was working with, and I just saw their creative energy, and I wanted to combine the two, creating my own story about what I feel they offer, and how I can combine these two elements of my imagination, and these other artists who were striving to figure out intimacy between men.
This is where these rituals came to be, by looking at the landscape, examining their personalities, and figuring out how I could put it all together. The image of Shaman is of a closer friend of mine, Adam Boehmer. He is a very talented musician, and I always saw his work as a healing tool. The combination of his voice, and his more folk-like style had an effect of euphoria for me. It would allow me to sit, clear my mind, and just let the rhythm and sound of his voice soothe me.
I took these feelings I had for him, and thought about his role in this more alternative universe, or fantasy, in my mind. Shaman was the first identity that came to mind, and I just went from there. The combination of the elements, his demeanor and story all just fell into place. I was drawn to the water, and put him in it, and thought about how he would interact with these people, what he might do for them, and how he does it. The story for him was then pieced together.
As for the rest of the series, you can see how I examined these other people, and their roles sort of fell into place. I was drawn to different locations by just visiting them, and seeing their individuality and what potential they had in my fantasy.
I wanted to break down their actions to very simple gestures, looking at how these characters interact with each other on a very primitive state, utilizing rituals and other religious gestures, as a way of trying to figure out each other. The rituals were an action that they could understand because it was habitual, it was something they could all connect through, and that they needed to do it to get to this greater understanding of how they work together.
As the series continued for form and morph together, their stories overlapped, characters were interchanged, and open ended narratives were formed. I didn’t want to make anything seem forced, and I wanted my viewers to take the simplicity of it, the vast and beautiful landscape, and just see where their imagination could take it.
AE: On a related note, can you give us a little insight or back-story as to how you actually set-up and compose these images? Do you give a lot of direction to your models? Do you have a clear photographic image in mind that you are aiming for? And how much do you tinker with the images once you have shot them?
SMJ: This is always a tough question for me. These images are created by previously visiting the space. These spaces return to me while I’m usually brainstorming about ideas, thinking about the possible scenarios or interactions that I want to create. The most recent images that deal with the pond came to me after visiting Turtle Pond in the Stonybrook Reservation, and being enchanted by how amazing this space was. I wanted to do something with it, but I needed to figure out what I was supposed to do! While swimming in the pond one day, I just looked down at my hands and saw that the water was very tea stained, and it hit me. I wanted to do something about a body in the water, and the imagery just came to me and I pieced the puzzle pieces together.
When I compose the images, I use basic photography and video rules when composing the shot, but I always try to gain a perspective that allows you to connect with the models. When asking my models to interact with a space, I will give a general direction of what I’m looking for, and through a series of takes and experimentation, I usually grab a few shots that I really like. The best thing for me that I noticed is to capture my models in an action that they feel comfortable with, that they feel comfortable working together, and that they are ok with the gestures or movement that they are told to execute. When shooting, I’m not to visually clear with how I want to create the image until I see my models navigate through the scene. That usually dictates how I alter and change how I create the image.
Once I tell my models what I’m looking for, roles of these actions usually come clear with the comfort level of each person in the shot. I vary up angles and compositions, and postproduction usually plays a big hand in how these images are composited and put together. Photoshop is my best friend, and I love utilizing all the tools to alter these images. There are many elements that might seem natural to the human eye, but they are severely altered to add the effect of what I’m going for. All the images in the recent series is evoked by it’s color and casting in the trees and waters.
AE: Earlier, you mentioned the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) fellowship that allowed you to live in Berlin from 2010-11. What drew you to Berlin? What did you research and explore while you were there? How has your experience in Berlin impacted the work you have made since then?
SMJ: It seems like it was so long ago! I went to Berlin back in 2008 on a whim in part of the international travel grant that the Museum School gave me. I went with 5 other SMFA fellows for a two-week intensive part of IPAH. It was something I’ve never done before, and I wanted to challenge myself to go outside of my comfort zone. During my time there I was exposed to so much beauty that this country offered, saw amazing art, and met amazing artists and people. It made me want to go back, and I had to figure out how I could do that.
So I did some research on post-WWII identity issues and a friend pointed me to some books to read. I found related material to work that I was currently doing about masculinity and constructed identity in gay men. I applied for a DAAD and a Fulbright, and in the end the DAAD came through!
The project that I prosed for my DAAD was to look at the third generation of gay men who currently lived in Berlin post-WWII. I was curious to see their development of their identity, how they viewed masculinity, and their intimacy between men. I was looking to interview, document, and find a better understanding about how other cultures navigate through these vast waters of self.
What ended up happening over my 10-month stay there was mostly me going through intense culture shock, having extreme difficulty learning the German language, and missing many of my close friends back home. I met and made some amazing friends during my time there, overcame many obstacles, learned to be less anxious about life, and first and foremost be happy with what I’m doing in my life.
These challenges and learning moments came back home with me to America, and I immediately applied them to my every day life. I let go of all the simple things that bothered me, learned to be more expressive in my words and gestures, and to always focus on the things that I’m passionate about. I wanted to do more with the skills and talents that I have, and I need to apply myself more.
This experience opened doors to a better understanding of myself and how I can approach my work in a way that is both meaningful to my viewer and me.
AE: In addition to your own art practice, you are also the executive director and co-founder of BLAA, a non-profit organization providing support and exhibition opportunities for Boston-based LGBTQIA artists, as well as the founder and event host for Fur & Gold, a monthly-organized event focused on promoting independent music and encouraging community to alternative LGBTQIA populations. First, how do you manage to balance and sustain these different endeavors, and second, how have they expanded your personal work?
SMJ: I’ve always considered myself a jack-of-all-trades, and always wanting to keep myself busy with the many interests that I have. I do consider myself someone who is good at organizing events and enjoy planning them. Fur & Gold has been going on for over four years now, and is almost embedded in my daily life. It’s ritualistic, so it’s become a monthly tradition for me, easy to put together because I know how it all flows. I’ve gotten deadlines and timing down to an art, so it’s easy to get it all executed, and each month brings a new and exciting experience for me.
As for the BLAA, this is a new area that I’m venturing into, but considering my background in curating and organizing events, it’s been both a great learning adventure and a great opportunity to meet people within my community. The task as Executive Director is demanding, but I’m ready to take this role, for I believe our mission statement is something important and lacking in Boston. I want to see it grow and flourish and am curious to see where my colleagues and me can take it.
Both F&G and the BLAA have expanded my personal work in many different ways. I meet people at F&G who want to be models (we do a monthly cover model each month), and after photographing them; I usually ask if they want to pose in my personal work. I’ve met other creative and talented people at the events that provide an influence or aid in the work that I create. I meet designers, people invited in fashion, or those who enjoy my work and want to help in any shape or form. I’ve gained access to some great resources if I need to tap into them, and am grateful for all those who have helped me along the way.
The BLAA has been amazing to meet and see all the amazing artwork from the talented artists who make up Boston. Meeting all these people has allowed me to see where people in my community are focusing their attention on in conceptual and topical work. I have allowed myself to branch out and meet people who I wouldn’t normally speak to because of their medium, or areas of practice that I’m not to familiar with, and I’ve gained a whole new respect for their work and what they do, and I can see the similarity of my work in their practice. It’s great to see that I’m not alone in the topics I explore, and it’s constantly invigorating to see who we will meet next, and how we can keep growing this network of talented people.
AE: Thank you Sean for your time and for sharing your work with me!
SMJ: I’ve had an amazing time speaking to you about my work. I feel that I’ve kept it in my head for so long, and after our studio visit it was great to see someone respond so positively to my pieces! I had a great time sharing my process with you. Thank you for the great time!
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For more information on Sean M. Johnson’s work, visit: http://www.seanmjohnson.com/
Fur & Gold: http://www.furgold.com/
Boston LGBTQIA Artist’s Alliance: http://blaa.us/