Studio Visits: Bethany Johnson
In a sharply divided two-room studio, Bethany Johnson slowly works herself out of a rut
"I remember in college leafing through an Artforum and not feeling too excited about anything," recalls Bethany Johnson, whose technically precise drawings of multilayered imagery were on view a couple months ago in her Justin Lane studio during the West Austin Studio Tour. "I finally found an image I liked, and it was an advertisement, featuring a schematic drawing of the gears of a watch. I don't know what that says about me or what's important to me." What it says is that Johnson finds inspiration in unlikely places, devouring maps, infographics, and landscape photography. At first, her diminutive drawings elicit a "gee whiz!" as they appear computer-generated but are actually hand-drawn. Her drawings are more than just technical feats; they index our relationships to the natural world, collapsing the outlines of lakes, pictures of landscapes, and other natural phenomena. Johnson makes the familiar unfamiliar. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Johnson moved to Austin for graduate school after a stint working on a dairy farm.
Bethany Johnson: I have two spaces. I have a light table in this room – I also have a web design business, that's why it's relatively ordered in here.
Austin Chronicle: I was going to say, what a clean space this is!
BJ: Yeah, [laughs] the mess is next door! Sonya Berg, who is also an artist, and her husband own this place, so I rent from them, and I'm their groundskeeper.
AC: Are you really a groundskeeper?!
BJ: I am, actually! I water all the plants. I've always fantasized about having a clean room and a messy room. My drawings have to stay clean and pristine, and in the other room I can do charcoal drawings, build and sand frames, you know, messy.
AC: Do you use the light table as your primary drawing surface?
BJ: It depends. When I create layered drawings, I might use the light table to make the first image and for the second image I won't.
AC: Does that mean you're engaged in a process of abstraction? The first image being an analogous tracing of a source image and the second is freehand, and more responsive to the first?
BJ: I feel these drawings are more about translation of content. The first drawing is a kind of literal copying, but the result becomes abstract because it's filtered through a binary system: Is this part of the source image dark enough to make a line?
AC: Your colors seem very intentional. How did you arrive at the colors you use in these drawings?
BJ: Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but it's a mundane reason. The technical pens I use only come in select colors. You can mix the inks of the cartridges somewhat, but any other ink will clog up these tiny pens.
AC: How do you know that you're done with a series or a body of work?
BJ: I feel I haven't had a long enough career to see a pattern. After graduate school, I started making this work, and I found I had gotten into my first rut – I had never been in a rut before!
AC: What was your experience of being "in a rut"?
BJ: It's probably similar to writing. If you discover something that works, there's a pressure to keep making the same kind of thing. Starting a new body of work means you're going to struggle and hate it. It's hard, people won't get it, you haven't yet made the right choices with scale, technique, content. It can be really scary.
AC: Speaking of scary, I'm getting vertigo from your carpet. It looks like an aerial view of suburban streets. It perfectly fits with your aesthetic!
BJ: Yeah, I got that from the ReStore [laughs]. I had to fight a woman for it.
More of Bethany Johnson's work can be found at www.bethanyjo.com.