An ongoing series of Q&As with some of L.A.’s most active and eclectic contemporary artists, introducing themselves to you in their own words. This week it’s Jay Mark Johnson, whose distinct timeline photographs defy assumptions about linearity across both time and space. Though Johnson regularly practices both sculpture and installation art, it is his proprietary method of capturing images that has piqued curiosity and garnered international attention.
L.A. WEEKLY: When did you first know you were an artist?
JAY MARK JOHNSON: For most of my life, the thought of playing a specific role in society has seemed both odd and limiting. With that said, whenever I get an idea for an artwork that awakens a dormant sensibility, opens a new perspective, addresses a pressing sociopolitical problem or provokes a bit of smart humor, that is when I feel I am fulfilling an interesting role for an artist. In parallel, when I am looking at art, I am most responsive to artworks that roughly fit those same criteria.
What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
The artworks most known to the L.A. art world are my large-format timeline photographs. When asked, I say that these are true timeline photographs, recorded as you see them, in camera. They are part of a decades-long investigation into the possibilities for depicting a visual delineation of events occurring over time. Some of the images also exploit the ability of the camera to register both the refraction and diffraction of light. That’s where the crazy color fields come in.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
Almost anything as long as it isn’t too repetitive or rigidly structured. Making music is called “playing” music. That sounds just right to me. I would enjoy doing almost anything as long as it generally fits that parameter. As mentioned, I also like addressing social injustices and other pressing societal problems. Meet all of those criteria and I will have some contentment doing just about anything.
Did you go to art school? Why/why not?
I did not go to art school. But I did study architecture. It was probably a good education in that it promoted both practical and critical thinking. I might have been happier in art school. But I never gave serious thought to the idea. Art school might have challenged and prepared me with practices that would have been helpful in shaping a recognizable art career.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I feel I am only accidentally here in L.A. even though I have lived here off and on for nearly 30 years. I like that the city is relatively relaxed compared to other major metropolises of the world. I enjoy making and showing art in L.A. but I prefer the local rigors of the art worlds in New York City and throughout the cultural city centers of Europe. Compared to all of those places, the weather is so much better here. I am challenged by the skyrocketing cost of living, especially for rent and real estate.
When was your first show?
I produced, exhibited and sold artwork many years ago but then left that work for other pursuits. When I returned to the practice with these timeline photographs, I was fortunate to quickly organize fairly large solo exhibitions — in Italy, in Hamburg and Berlin, Germany, and in Los Angeles. Those shows began in 2007. I have been exhibiting steadily since then.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I currently have a solo exhibition called “It's About Time” here in Los Angeles at William Turner Gallery at Bergamot Station. That show opened Dec. 1 and will run through mid-January. In Los Angeles I am currently participating in “Between Two Seas” at the Santa Monica Airport Art Studios. I also have works in “Wild Blue Yonder” at the United Airlines terminal at LAX. In Prague I have artworks in the “Velvet Land” exhibition showing at ?erná Labu? Gallery. At the Villa Francke Gallery in Potsdam, I am currently showing in the “Digital Landscapes” exhibition.
What artist living or dead would you most like to show with?
Today and over the last several months? Joseph Beuys. Tomorrow, perhaps someone else.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?
I keep thousands of songs on my mobile phone and, when I travel, carry one of those portable Bluetooth mini-speakers with me. I love shifting around between genres, artists and titles. Sometimes I will get stuck on one song, one artist or one album for months at a time. It would be impossible to list everyone. Jazz, soul, R&B, blues, some old rock, folk and pop, plenty of world music, string quartets, philharmonic. Tops on my list tend to be Aretha, John Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Fela Kuti, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, Gil Scott-Heron, Janis Joplin, Dylan, Bach, Beethoven, Pablo Casals, Yo-Yo Ma, Professor Longhair, Kamasi Washington, Jessie Montgomery!!!, Esperanza Spalding, Willie Colon, Rubén Blades, Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodríguez, Juan Luis Guerra … this is impossible!
Website and social media handles, please!