Thursday, March 22, 2012

Carl Johansen: The Bottom Line (1981)

We had finally arranged everything – set the hour, bought the food, tidied up the house, even borrowed an especially lurid drawing called Worship.  Bringing Worship had set the tone, in a way.  When one carries a work of art, it’s hard not to look at it steadily.  It’s easy to see why so many of his fellow artists admire Carl Johansen’s work:  what a finely rendered set of nether lips!  What an insinuating tongue!  But why all those bandages?  And what is it about the man’s looks that makes him seem so slimy?  What is it about her position that . . . golly, does she even have a left leg?  We don’t know what to expect from Carl Johansen.
He arrived on time, having been led to the house by ARTlines editors Steve Parks and Lois Gilbert.  He introduced himself.  He is surprisingly mild, diffident, and boyish.  In his early thirties and about six feet tall, he has no hooves or tail, or any other obvious deformity.  His only unusual feature, in fact is the somewhat goofy quality of his mischievous grin.
The conversation began with whatever Johansen–ARTlines connection existed, an offhand reference to the artist (“The man who does pornographic drawings does them very well . . .”, from a piece on The Function of Art) in the March issue, and Johansen’s terse letter in the next issue:  “I don’t do pornographic drawings.”

Did that quote in ARTlines make you angry?
I wasn’t mad, I just thought it was funny.  But I don’t do pornographic art.  I sent the letter to set the record straight.

You don’t consider your drawings pornographic?
Not at all.  They’re about a lot of other things than just sex.

They often have a dreamlike quality, but it’s a combination of a wet dream and a nightmare.
What a combination!  I think they look pretty unforeboding.  I’m usually taken aback when people tell me, “This upsets me.”  They don’t look that way to me.

What do they look like to you?
Normal things that go on . . . people hanging out.  They’re not usually in pain, unless the situation is really weird.  They’re people just doing what they have to do, but what I do is emphasize physical things that we think about but don’t normally see.  It has a TV quality, to me.

Why do you so often show people who are bandaged, and amputees?We all have handicaps.  I got a great letter from a triple amputee from Vietnam who saw my work in Santa Fe.  He said, “I notice you use a lot of amputees and ‘deformed’ people.  I was really happy to see that you treated them like everybody else in your things.”  He enclosed a photograph of himself in his wheelchair.  It was the best letter I ever got.  I’m doing a drawing now of a woman with her head buried in the sand on her hands and knees, and this guy is mounting her from the rear.  He’s been chopped off at the knees.  She’ll put up with him, but she doesn’t want to look at him.

Is there any social commentary implicit in a drawing like that?
No.  I started using bound up women a long time ago as a metaphor.

What was the metaphor?
Women are bound up in roles.  Freedom of Choice.  Freedom from Choice was the title of one of them and that’s exactly what we all have.  Some people don’t want freedom of choice, they’d rather be bound up.

Punk art is becoming something of a buzz word in the arts.
Yeah.  It’ll be outdated in six months.

Do you feel any identification with punk?
No, none at all.  I don’t dress like these people or act like them.  But I like some of the music.  The Clash especially.  Smart guys making smart music.

Sometimes there appear to be religious influences and references in your work.  Are you a religious person?
I was sent to church as a kid, but I don’t attend anymore.  I don’t believe in anything other than what’s here.  The first time I have been to a church in years was last month, to see Little Richard at an Albuquerque Baptist church.  He’s been born again, again, and he’s on his new saved material, but he’s still great.  He starts rattling about drugs, and then he gets into homosexuality:  “Brothers and sisters, I was a kno-o-o-own homosexual.”  The crowd was getting a little tense, you could tell.  And Little Richard says, “God did not create Adam and Steve.”  I cracked up.  That set off an idea for a drawing in my head.  I’m working on it now, The Expulsion of Adam and Steve.

Why do you live in Albuquerque?
You don’t have to be a part of any crowd.  I live right downtown, between the Mission and the liquor store.  Hard core . . . but it’s pretty nice.  I’ve never been able to understand all the people who seem to resent Albuquerque.  “How can you possibly live there?”  Everybody hates it there, but I think it’s one of the better places.  It’s like any other southwest town, it’s spread out but it’s easy to get out of town and into the country.  Plus it has a lot of movie theaters.

When do you work?
Never.  I go to movies constantly.  I hire little kids and winos to paint my pictures:  “Here, fill this in for me.”  No, I work all day long.  I love to draw.

Have you ever lived anywhere really beautiful?

You were involved in a fairly loud controversy recently with the “Here and Now” show at Albuquerque Museum.  What was that all about?
I don’t know.  I’ve heard two different stories from people at the museum, so I don’t know.  They took my stuff off the wall, and didn’t tell me.  It was ten days before I found out.  It was so stupid.  The director was scared about his job.  He told me a feminist group was coming in to picket the museum.  “Fine.  Let them picket.  They don’t have to like my work.”  All I heard was, “Hey, I don’t want to lose my job.”  I don’t understand it at all.  They saw the pieces before they went up.  They agreed to show them, and then someone pressured them into taking them down.  There wasn’t any concern for the artists.  A city councilman saw them, I was told, and said, “Some tits, big deal.”  They were really tame pieces; the director just panicked.

(The two pieces were removed after six weeks of a ten-week show.  The friend of Johansen who had loaned one of the “offending” pieces asked for it back, and got it.  Another artist friend who learned of the censorship asked to have his work removed from the show as well.  The curator took the remaining Johansen piece to the mayor and city council, who were embarrassed by being, however unwittingly, parties to a censorship dispute.  The remaining Johansen drawing was put back into the “Here and Now” show.)

Do you have any personal contact with women who object to your art?
Some.  They just yell at me at parties.  (Laughter)  But men are in the same spot as women in all these drawings.  There’s no difference.  Everybody’s caught in this thing, and they’re all there. But some people just zero in on this one aspect and that’s all they see.

What is it they focus on?
I don’t know.  Everybody has a different view, but they just see one little thing.  “Look at what you’ve done to her!”  Yeah, but look at this guy over here:  he’s got no legs and he’s blindfolded and his situation is pretty bad.  Some people don’t like to look at amputees.

In our culture, the way we’re brought up, any graphic depiction of sex is considered obscene.  But it’s more than sex.  Some of your drawings are very disturbing, in a way that’s hard to define.  There are elements in them that make me wonder about my sanity, and about yours.
I get the word disturbing a lot. They don’t disturb me.

Do you consciously try to shock people?
No, not really.

Do you have a bad attitude?
Not me, boy.  Tell me something.  I’ll guarantee to like it.

(Positive attitude or whatever it is, Johansen seems far saner, much less angry in his person, than we might have expected from his work.  We remembered that one friend of his from Albuquerque had called him “kind of a Mister Rogers.”  The remark had seemed absurd, but little by little the comparison with the meticulous, patient children’s TV star made sense.  Both men considered examples of sweetly contented obsession.  Johansen says simply when asked about the graphic themes in his art, “This is what I think about.”  And a Taos artist whom we asked about his work said, “He’s very smart to get it out that way.”)

Where were you born?
Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I was a Marine Corps kid.  Grew up in the corps. 

Were you ever in the service?
No.  My father was.  I wasn’t.  I rebelled.

Someone said you went to Vietnam.
Nope.  Not me.  I went to art school.

Were you the kind of high school student who doodled in his notebook all day long?
Oh yes.  I was a Big Daddy Roth protégé.  He was a California cartoonist who painted hot rods.  He’s obnoxious and wonderful.  I copied him, and then I copied Murph the Surf by Rick Griffin.

Were you influenced by the keep-on-truckin’ comics?
Sure.  Robert Crumb, Justin Green, and S. Clay Wilson.  Those were my favorites, especially Crumb.  I think he’s a genius.

What kept you from going into cartooning?
Art school.  It’ll ruin anybody.

But you got a BA and an MA; you must have been academically inclined.
I was trying to get out of the draft.  And I did.

Are there a lot of mythology references in your work?
Art-related mythology.  Oriental themes, and cowboys and Indians.  Oddly enough, they work together.  They don’t oppose each other as you think they might.  Cowboys were in the last period before mass communication.  That period had always intrigued me.  Myths grow bigger without mass communication. 

You’ve several pictures of famous artists.
Yes, I’ve done Picasso many times, and George Grosz and Oyvind Fahlstrom.  I admire them.

I would guess that you don’t censor your daydreams in making your art, that the passageway from thinking it to doing it is unusually direct.  You say, in effect, “This is what crosses my mind, so I’ll draw it.”
Yes, I get a lot of failures that way, but it’s still a good way to work.  It keeps the work fresh.

Do you throw out a lot of work?
Constantly.  I keep maybe one out of ten things.  It’s usually really easy to tell what doesn’t work, right away.  It jumps right out.  It just looks horrible, or stupid.  Blatant.  After I spend a couple of days on something, it’s hard to rip it up.  But God! What if I put it out in public?

How long can you work on something without realizing it is terrible?
Months.  It’s true.  You have to say, “I just cannot accept what I’ve done, but hopefully I will learn from this.”  Store it away, or throw it away.

Are you doing any painting now?
Yes, more than before.  I did a lot of drawings in the last few years. Drawing is a fun medium.  But with painting I can do bigger things.  Covering paper with tiny pencil points is endless.

What materials do you use?
I use Kerin pencils, the cheapest pencils there are - $1.19 for 12.  And just right, between a hard tip and a soft tip.  I use any paper that’s really cheap.  I experiment a lot, because the pencils look different on different papers.

(The spaghetti was ready, so we turned off the tape recorder, cleared the table, and sat down to eat.  We joked and laughed throughout dinner.  Johansen obviously loves his work, but he is good-humored about it, too.  “Cuckoo,” he calls some of it.  “Orientagenitalism,” we chirp back.  His work has been outspoken – sometimes grotesque, sometimes violent – for years, but in the past two years, since his marriage of ten years started breaking up -- he is now divorced -- did the imagery become so sexually explicit. With the three interviewers it was hard not to make it seem that we were putting Johansen unfairly on the defensive, but when dinner came to its end we agreed we had to talk about the sexual content of his work still more.)

Okay, I’ll tell the truth now.  I just love drawing naked women.

Do you use live models?
Sometimes, but mostly photos.  Most women won’t pose that way.  Can you imagine me saying, “Now listen! This is what I want you to do.  I’ll gag you, tie you up, but don’t worry:  it’s all a metaphor.  You’re going to meet a man with no legs who may do certain things to you, but it’s okay.  It’s not pornography.” I know that people like those feminists object to this victimization.  But I interchange the victims.  A drawing I’m working on now has three women and a naked, beaten man kissing the shoe of one of the women.  It’s a funny drawing.  The women will love it.  People who think I’m a jerk in one narrow way will now think I’m a jerk in a whole new way.  I can be a jerk in every category.

But you do care what people think, don’t you?
Of course.  But nobody’s opinion will make me say, “I’ll never do this again.”  I’m doing fags, I’m doing women beating men.  I want to do them all.  It’s all the same thing.  I don’t care what sex I use, or what they’re doing.  They’re just human beings, stuck in these situations.  We always are.

You do focus on sex a lot, though.
Sex is the bottom line.  Everybody thinks about it constantly.  Once every ten seconds, I think they say.  Some days once every three seconds.  Some days it never leaves my brain for a moment.  Sex is the bottom line for confrontations.  It gives the edge to things.

Does it fuel your interest, that it’s so controversial?

You don’t intend to be controversial?
Not at all.  I really don’t.  I’m removed from the effect it has.

But people are going to look at your work.  It hangs in a gallery. 
But, you know, a lot of people come up and say my things are really nice.  “I can see what’s happening there, and it’s happened to me, too.”  It’s not all negative response.

Do you think regret is ever an appropriate emotion?
Guilt.  I think it rules the world.  A lot of the drawings I do are involved with guilt.  I don’t think we can avoid it.  To be guilt-free would be wonderful, but I don’t think it’s possible.  We’re just trained to feel guilty.  And we’ll even do things we know will make us guilty later on, without even considering what will surely happen.  And sooner or later here it comes, that little black cloud over the head.

Larry Houghteling, Stephen Parks, May 1981

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