"Mining the archive is like building a time machine; I look at the material culture of the past as a way of understanding what has come into being in our contemporary times."
Sue Johnson (American, born San Francisco, CA) is an internationally exhibited artist who spent her early childhood first in the Bay Area and then Los Angeles, and from the age of eight she grew up in Mendham, New Jersey. She earned an MFA in Painting and Printmaking from Columbia University and a BFA in Painting from Syracuse University, studying art in London, England and Florence, Italy with Syracuse University.
Johnson's artworks and multiple media installations are revisionist in method creating plausible fictions that run both parallel and counter to canonical histories. Works combine installation, painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, found objects and artist books. Projects focus on topics that include; the origins of museums, cabinets of curiosities and “lost” collections, the picturing of Nature and women, the domestic universe and consumer culture – and collectively, defy easy categorization.
Often invited by museums and university galleries to develop research-based exhibition and intervention projects, she has collaborated with the Pitt-Rivers Museum (University of Oxford, UK), The Rosenbach Museum and Library (Philadelphia, PA), Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum (Salisbury, UK), and the American Philosophical Society Museum (Philadelphia, PA). Installations range from Johnson’s first project which created an immersive pseudo-scientific semi-circular image of planetary movement (Phobos, 1983) to an always site-specific quasi-authentic museum of cultured-natural history (The Alternate Encyclopedia, 1995-2009) to a more recent project that recreates a Kodachrome view of the mid-20th century’s world of abundance, convenience and planned obsolescence (Ready-Made Dream, 2013-18). A recent project, Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines (2016 - ongoing) focuses on objects of desire by proposing an alternate pictorial history that imagines the cultural evolution of the modern female form as conjoined with objects of domestic convenience, efficiency and planned obsolescence. In her most recent project developed during the pandemic, The Trophies (2020 - ongoing) young women pose atop quotidian award trophies for the camera's gendered eye in attitudes meant to mark the boundaries of the female domain. Alternately and like all the installation projects, studio-based works study and organize objects of desire, merging the anthropomorphic nature of recognizable things with the disquieting pictorial language of ‘vanitas’.
Johnson's work has been the subject of over forty one-person exhibitions at venues that include the Tweed Museum of Art (Duluth, MN), Jan Cicero Gallery (Chicago, IL), Eleanor D. Wilson Museum of Hollins University (Roanoke, VA), Brooklyn Botanic Garden (Brooklyn, NY), Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford, England), Midwest Museum of American Art (Elkhart, IN), Swarthmore College(Swarthmore, PA), Anderson Gallery/VCU (Richmond, VA), VisArts (Rockville, MD), Workhouse Arts Center (Lorton, VA), The Rosenbach Museum and Library (Philadelphia, PA), Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum (Salisbury, England), Walton Art Center (Fayetteville, AR), University of Memphis (Memphis, TN), and University of Richmond Museums (Richmond, VA). Grant awards include a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts-Mid Atlantic Foundation Fellowship, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Professional Visual Art Fellowship, and four Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council. Selected residency fellowships include the Arts/Industry Program of the John Michael Kohler Art Center, MacDowell, Millay Colony for the Arts, Art Omi, Sam and Adele Golden Foundation Residency, Studios at MASS MoCA, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, City of Salzburg/Salzburg Kunstlerhaus Residency Fellowship, Scuola Internazionale di Grafica Venezia, I-Park Foundation, Jentel Foundation, CAMAC/Centre D'Art Marnay Art Centre, and library research residencies at the American Philosophical Society, the American Antiquarian Society and most recently at the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. Johnson served as Visiting Scholar-in-Residence at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in Oxford, England in 2010-11, and has been a Visiting Artist at the American Academy in Rome in 2011 and 2015.
Reviews of her work have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Brooklyn Rail, The New Art Examiner, Partisan Review, and Art Papers. Her work is in numerous public collections including MOMA/Franklin Furnace Archive, Muscarelle Museum of Art, Yale University Libraries, The Menil Collection, U.S. Embassy Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Smithsonian American Art Museum Libraries, Prudential Life Insurance Co., Bristol-Myers/Squibb, Tweed Museum of Art, Maier Museum of Art, Bucknell University, Francis J. Greenburger Foundation, among many others.
Johnson lectures widely on her work, and has held teaching positions at Parsons School of Design, Marymount Manhattan College, Herron School of Art/Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, and currently is Professor of Art in the Department of Art & Art History at St. Mary's College of Maryland where she has served as the Steven Muller Distinguished Professor of the Arts and was awarded the Norton T. Dodge Award for Creative and Scholarly Achievement. She lives and works in Richmond, VA and St. Mary's City, MD.