Last week Zach Johnsen opened a solo show of his latest works, cleverly titled “House of Uncommons,” at Hellion Gallery in Portland, OR. The week before that, his first child was born. To say it’s been an emotional time in his life is an understatement. His latest series deals with other, more obscure, factors that influence our emotions. Zach’s artist statement describes “House of Uncommons” as “the governmental system regulating the flow of life and energy within the spirit and cosmic world… Unlike the government we know which regulates roads, people, money, etc, the House of Uncommons is responsible for regulating the ebbs and flows of the spirit.” I caught up with Zach in downtown Portland where we discussed his show, the real-world ideas behind his concepts, what happens if you flip politicians inside out and his anal-retentive tendencies.
There have been some pretty big things happening in your life recently, how are you holding up?
I’m doing well, now that the baby is born and the show is up I can relax a little and it feels good. I was in and out for a little while. I had to check-out of the art stuff while Syd [Zach’s girlfriend] was in labor then I checked back in to finish up. I set up a little studio at home in the room where she was born and I would be working on the last couple of smaller pieces in amongst doing other stuff. I think the frantic energy found its way into those pieces because they were made in that environment. It was hard, but I had a good support system in place, family and friends bringing food etc. I’m well fed and well rested.
This is the first time I’ve seen your work presented as a fully formed narrative concept, what was the genesis of this idea?
I’m building aesthetically on things I’ve done before, but conceptually it’s a little different. I wanted to establish a fantasy form of government or Parliamentary system that is grounded in our world, but exists in the energy realm or spirit world and create these characters to each represent a different role. I feel government rules and regulations are so pervasive, which is fucked up, but necessary… to an extent. I’m not saying I hate government or anything, but I wanted to explore why people feel the need to control things and how that happens organically, people either rise up or are subjugated.
Although there are clear parallels between your represented world and western democratic governments, the US, UK and Canada especially, the imagery also crosses other cultures, what were your aesthetic influences?
Mostly Indonesia and other countries in South East Asia. The work is talking about spiritual leaders of the past, the shaman who were sort of a liaison between the spirit world and the farmers. The guy who has his hands in the dirt and doesn’t necessarily think about those otherworldly issues.
Do you see those cultures influencing one another in reality or was it purely a choice for the way you wanted your work to look?
Yeah, I think there is permeation between the west and those cultures, thinking about places I have visited. I went to Vietnam in 2008 and there was a McDonalds, it’s rare now to go anywhere and not see those companies. It’s not a positive notion, there’s an erosion of these ancient cultures through fast food and other things.
I think you’ve hit on something very real and current. Recently we have learned a lot about how pervasive government can be, especially in our private lives. Obviously this series was started before those revelations, but is that idea something you wanted to comment on?
I’m not a revolutionary necessarily, there’s got to be some government. In this state, there are some great social programs for the homeless for example. I’m not trying to dog on government or say scrap the whole thing, but I am trying to understand it a little better. People like to complain about how things work and where the power lies but I feel it’s natural, almost like the flow of electricity or any other energy source. It flows from one area to another and when that system gets over-loaded, it goes to a system of lesser energy. It sucks that there is so much opportunity for corruption and that companies get to influence so many things while trying to operate with as little restriction as possible, but I think I’m getting off course…
I’m drawn immediately to the pieces in the show that feel familiar to me or reflect the style I associate with you, but there are a lot of new ideas and motifs. How did you arrive at those?
This is the first painting show I’ve done that is all on canvas and wood, I usually work on paper. I love how watercolor interacts with paper, but it can be limiting in that it’s impossible to erase and it’s not easy to layer too much. So what I would have previously called a finished piece in watercolor ended up being only the beginning of these works. Usually the head is missing entirely, replaced by an explosion of color, but here I’ve added the masks and faces, which is completely new for me. The reason they’re included is that I see the characters as what would happen if you flipped each of these people inside out. If you flipped David Cameron or Barrack Obama inside out, this is what they’d look like. These characters are like little power centers that we don’t see always but they are present, they determine how you feel. I also added new elements to my process, such as using smoke bombs, which were really fun.
Your process seems driven in part by expressionism and freedom, how much planning was done before you started painting?
More often than not I knew what character I wanted to feature and I had sketches of the composition, but I wasn’t necessarily sure of the color schemes. Sometimes I’d start with splashing a little light color, I’d smoke bomb maybe 3 or 4 canvasses, making marks and interesting shapes. I would use multiple colors and play around with fades. It was definitely an experiment at first and then I’d bring those back up to the studio and lay more color down in diluted acrylic much in the same style I’ve used in the past. Then after doing that over a few times, once the background was set, I would work on the figures and faces. I don’t know if I’m anal-retentive, but I definitely have a way I need to do things and a way they need to end up. Although there’s no defined background, no horizon line or trees or what have you, there’s depth in the pieces because of that process. I enjoyed working on top of that depth adding more and more layers until I was happy with it. My design background helped there too as I need to tidy everything up. The nice thing about the smoke bomb is that the color would never be covered up completely; they’re really stubborn, even after layers and layers of paint and sealant the color still bleeds through. I really like how that ended up looking.
Do you see this show as the entire story or just the first chapter?
I definitely want to build on this, although it is its own idea for the show, it was really fun to work on, think about and research. Maybe there will be a time when I work on a similar idea, but the more recognizable elements will be completely gone, the characters will be big nebulous monsters with no clothes. I want to continue painting, continue to get better at painting and build upon this idea, create more spirit realm figures with more plumage. My previous work was about burden and I always feel like the more medals you have, the heavier your attire gets and I’d like to explore that in my next works. Build on the idea but also literally build the characters more.
What are your hopes for the next stage of your career?
Ultimately I’d love to travel through my work, either by having shows in other countries or live/work situations anywhere in the world.
“House of Uncommons” will be on display at Hellion Gallery (19 NW 5th Ave #208, Portland, OR 97209) until August 31.