mariah anne johnson


statement“I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill. …

The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild.”

                            —Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar”


I am an artist originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, now living in Washington, DC. Since I began working as an artist, I have been interested in narrative, memory, and the effect of place on our perception of these topics. My interest in these subjects stems from my having grown up in the American South, where culture is focused on the past and family histories are preserved in a collective memory of language, objects, and gestures. I explore these ideas through a bifurcated working method in which my daily practice is creating paintings on paper in my studio, paired with forays into exhibition spaces where I create large-scale installations with bed sheets.

I became aware of the importance of place to my work when I realized what role place had in forming me as a person. During the summer before my senior year of college, I lived and studied art in New York City. Nothing around me was familiar, and for the first time in my life I was completely alone. Because of my isolation, I realized that I was missing the constant presence of the past that was a part of my daily life at home. I began to understand my own identity as originating from a place—Arkansas and the South—and its own particular, history-focused culture. Since that time, I have lived in four different areas of the country: Houston, Texas; Champaign and Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; and Washington, DC. I know that each one plays a role in the work I make, as their geographies and inhabitants have left their imprints on my memory. Place affects my art because of the sensory experiences I have that are unique to a location; every city, or town, or middle of nowhere has its own shape, color palette, vegetation, quality of light, and pace of life. My artworks are deeply rooted in their sites because they reflect my direct experience of the concrete world around me.


Bed Sheets

I make site-specific installations from second-hand bed sheets and pillowcases. I am informed by: my mother’s meticulously organized linen closet; the tenants of color, line, shape, and mark native to painting; and the facts of a site as I find it.

I use my work to investigate the nooks and crannies of a site. I work intuitively, folding and piling my sheets on and around the significant architectural features of an exhibition space, poking them into cracks as far as a fold will allow, and wrapping them around columns or beams until they sag and collapse under their own weight. I am committed to material honesty: my installations are constructed only with bed sheets and pillowcases and their interactions with a particular space; I do not use other materials or hidden structures to prop them up or keep them in place.

I pay rigorous attention to gradual color shifts and color relationships that develop within my works, and to the forms that grow from the repetition of folds and knots. The result of my stacking, draping, and layering is a painting made in space. The interactions among color combinations, printed patterns, folding systems, and the underlying structure of chair, windowsill, or ceiling joist become visually engaging and reference gestural brush marks or large color fields. These connections to abstract and minimalist painting are reinforced by the repetition of folds and materials. Because I have removed them from their domestic context, the sheets can operate on this formal, physical level.

However, embedded within these satisfying abstractions are everyday human dramas. Because I am using these materials that are so intimately connected with human bodies, the works are infused with the memories and habits of their previous owners. Since these previous owners are strangers, their stories are lost. I have to decide for myself what kind of person slept every night in a jungle bedroom with lion faces and zebra herds; who purchased the slinky nylon satin and what they expected from it; who chose flowers; who chose stripes. The sheets become fabric for pieced together, re-imagined histories, including the narrative of my own folding, sorting, and stacking over the 10 years I have been making this work.

The physical nature of my materials, combined with their connection to the domestic realm, allows me to address many different topics at once. In my work, I can talk about painting and storytelling, reality and reverie, color and memory, all at the same time. Whether piled in the awkward corners of a room or layered on a shelf, the sheets are reminders of a variety of human activities: sleeping, dreaming, housekeeping, lovemaking, birthing, dying, etc. They offer us a glimpse into the linen closets of other people and other times, and perhaps allow us to recall our own past experiences in the comforting confines of bed.


Painting & Drawing

The paintings and drawings pictured on this website are representative of my long-term studio practice, through which I focus on color and pattern and use as visual research to support my better-known installation work. I have come to understand painting as my way to record and process visual stimuli I encounter every day or find stored in my imagination. I work from memories of these visual experiences: a kitchen filled with buttery sunlight, half-dirty shirts spilling from a closet, cluttered tabletops, a brightly painted door, a violent thunderstorm. On the large sheets of paper pinned to the walls of my studio, these glimpses morph into big areas of washy blue-gray gouache or thick striped piles of fluorescent paint. The resulting works are a combination of old and new interests, blending crooked drawings of half remembered rooms with exuberant painted patterns. This regular visual play with color, form, and pattern is how I keep my eyes and mind fresh; a blank piece of paper allows me to test my ideas in a gravity-free zone that is independent of the laws of time and physics. The paintings are a research lab for my three-dimensional work in which possibilities are limitless.