Artist interview: art talk between sculptor Johan P. Jonsson and art critic Therese Engström
A figure equals an expression - that is how the sculptures of Johan P. Jonsson appears. His figures are full feeling; man caught in a moment when he is stripped of politeness, presentability, dissimulation. Forged and jointed by all sorts of materials and objects a frail human form, often miserable, vulnerable to life's pain, steps out and presents itself. Sometimes the sculpture consists of two or more characters, enrolled in some form of relationship to each other, yet there is seldom any expression of spirit of community, each figure carries its own existential loneliness.
When we look at the figure we get a glimpse of a story, we can imagine a drama or trauma; something is going on, or has happened, outside the boundaries of the sculpture, and we see only its effects.
When I told Johan that I often see loneliness, sadness and desolateness in his sculptures, he replies that he too sees it, and continues: "I also find this much more interesting, and that is the case for me in art, music, literature: the people who interest me are almost exclusively people who do not fit together properly. Friction creates tension and therefore is a person who is not homogeneous a lot more interesting." He adds: "But it need not be such a person completely" and explains what he means by talking about how he once saw one of his godchildren gallop around the way nine-year-olds do. Suddenly, struck by a thought, she halted and started to move shrunken, seemingly completely enclosed within herself. That attitude of the child remained in Johan's head and he thinks he can now see exactly that posture in one of his sculptures. "So, the sculpture is not a depiction of a particular person, or a reflection of how a person is at all times, or show a certain type of people who are always depressed or being outcasts of society - it could be that I have borrowed only a certain emotional state."
I know that Johan is working hard and disciplined and that he is hard on himself when it comes to his own art. With most of the sculptures he makes, there's an increasing discontent over time and the sculptures are taken apart so that the material can be reused and become new sculptures. He does not in any way make it easy for himself and when I ask him about what it is that drives him in his work and makes him continue, despite all efforts, he replies: "I've always felt that I suffer from some kind of compulsive curiosity that drives me and forces me forward; so it's kind of an exploration, kind of a search I'm persuing. This forced movement forward is both good and bad: of course it also makes you dissatisfied with almost everything you do. Instead of stopping, I'm being forced forward, somewhat against my own will - sometimes it would surely feel damn good not to have to continue on this route." "You're a bit at the mercy of this curiosity?" I ask and Johan replies, "Yes, I guess that is a good way of putting it."
This compulsive motion forward, a restless wandering where nothing is constant except the moving itself, also characterizes Johan's sculptures. Johan tells me that Ahasver -"the wandering Jew", the man who according to legend denied Jesus a rest outside his house on Jesus's walk to Golgotha, and who Jesus therefore cursed to forever wander - is somewhat a keynote in his work . Johan continues: "Tonus is also such a keyword, which has always existed in the background. It's not that I consciously work with these two concepts and try to portray them in any way, but they seem to come back to me over and over. I see tonus as a kind of muscle strain even at rest, as the tension and preparedness that exists in the muscles so that they can start quickly from a resting state. It is motion stuck in a standstill! So even if my figures at the moment is stationary, there is a defense readiness and a movement - they're on their way. "
We're looking at the sculpture The Que and we talk about it and about how Johan work. When he began working with the sculpture he had no picture in his head of what it would look like, with its two waiting figures: His working process is more of a search for what it is that works. "Sometimes I rely on chance, too," Johan says, "it is something that I've used on and off for quite a few years now, to resolve problems and to force myself to think in new ways. For example, I could use a dice to decide that I have to add one, two, or more figures to the sculpture - and then I'm forced to somehow solve that problem. I sometimes use other forms of randomness. On my workbench I have all sorts of scrap and sometimes I just pick an item randomly which then have to be part of the sculpture - just to force a character to take a new direction." "So that can be for example a piece of a folding rule or a nut?" I ask. "Yeah, pretty much anything... a tail light for a car... It doesn't always work, but sometimes, every now and then, it turns out right. And at other times it has given birth to an idea that lets me continue experimenting..."
I return to using The Que as an example and asks: "So this loneliness and desolation which I believe are characteristic of these two figures, even if they stand together, were not something you specifically struggled to portray?" Johan replies, "I actually never struggle to portray anything. That's simply not the way I work."
One of the reasons we are talking about The Que is that it is one of few sculptures that Johan still feels okey with even now when some time has passed. He says that he, when he looks back, can see a direction in what he does and he says about The Que:
"Somehow... this piece sums up what I have long tried to do. This is what I've been looking for for years, when it comes to expression, theme, materials, and the mixture of materials." Johan also mentions an older sculpture, The Game, who some years ago was sold at the gallery in Oslo, as a piece of work he actually still feels happy with: "It has that raw, primitive quality that I am after. It is the least processed of the sculptures that have made it through the final sorting out. The materials are very raw and shapes, expressions, faces are very incomplete, non-human. It is almost an intermediate stage between human and animal, when it comes to faces and bodies. So both The Que and The Game are somewhat key works. At least they're important checkpoints along the road."
Johan continues to talk about his development and his artistic search, that his work is aimed at reaching what he terms the "basic figures", the ones he has always known that he has within himself, how he constantly struggles to get them out of the material and how much closer he has gotten. "It's a bit strange, because when I made my first sculptures I saw the figures I am doing nowadays in those clumsy, almost half abstract shapes; it's just that I couldn't pull them out. But it's towards this I've been heading all the time." I say that I think his expression is more stripped-down these days, I think that a few years ago he used more of entire items in his sculptures. Johan agrees and says he now uses less of whole items because he cannot make it work, it expresses something he can't stand for. I ask if the objects themselves then steals too much attention and Johan replies, "Yes, the history of those items then haunts my sculptures, people easily see it as some sort of clever recycling of those objects, and that is simply not what I'm trying to do." He is however careful to point out: "But my interest is always this mix of materials and objects, using several different ones and get it to work."
Many times during our conversation, Johan says he's looking for "that raw quality and energy". He shows a sculpture that he has begun to see a lot of shortcomings in, "especially in the way it's handcrafted", and points out, among other things, a foot that he believes should be done in a different way. But he hesitates, the expression he strives for is lost if he overelaborates, it's the defects that yield the energy he is looking for and he says: "There is always a fear that it will turn out too decorative, that it will lose this raw, primitive. If it gets lost the sculpture risks being decoration, interior design, a nice touch of color that matches the couch."
Johan wants his art to affect people. He sees a problem in contemporary art, especially the conceptual art, which he believes is too often created out of a desire to achieve a sensation in the viewer, something was created to give a striking impression and then, afterwards, the reasons for it was thought out, it is given an intellectual superstructure. It is art that leaves no lasting impression in the viewer: "It is ... entertainment really, it's there to produce kicks. There's contact for like two seconds, and you think, then, almost as a factual finding that that was quite awesome. And that's all there is to it. It is so intellectualized that there is no connection to the emotions." I say: "You do quite the opposite, one could say, a kind of anti-intellectual art." "Yes," Johan replies, "it's based on emotions." He continues: "I reckon that the only thing I can do, is to channel what I do through myself, I flush the working process, or ideas, or the cretive process in so concentrated a form as possible, through myself, and what comes out is something that reflects me, in one way or another. The only way to do something that can affect another person - is to do something that is me."
The conversation between Johan and me has lasted long. It is challenging to capture in words and formulate internal processes and towards the end we're both a bit tired. Therefore, a fairly resolute statement of Johan will constitute the final words in this portrayal of his art: "Actually it's quite prosaic: it is a hard damn work, for several years, where I feel that there is a line which starts at one point and which will continue as long as it continues. Quite simply."