I witnessed "Hail We Now Sing Joy" at the Milwaukee Art Museum during the Members Only opening on Thursday. I also witnessed Johnson's accompanying artist talk. Johnson is interested in, as he put it, "cultivating witnesses." Witnesses can tell the story of the art object. Witnesses make experiences into history.
I witnessed Antione's Organ, a giant installation of plants in Johnson's handmade pots (accompanied by bugs and dirt), books (Wright's Native Son, Beatty's The Sellout, Coates' Between the World and Me, and Dickerson's The End of Blackness), fluorescent grow lights, boxes of African shea butter, sculpted shea butter, and small tvs playing short films (one of Johnson applying shea butter, another of a woman from a gospel choir, another of Johnson watching Coates on TV). These objects live in a black grid structure, all activated from within by a secret piano player.
After experiencing Antione's Organ for a few minutes I became aware of how others were interacting with the installation. The majority of the large crowd stood a significant distance from Antione's Organ. The installation is very tall, so perhaps they stepped back to take in the entire piece, but I suspect most people didn't know how to interact with it. Great art makes viewers (witnesses?) uncomfortable and Antione's Organ had the contradictory effect of making people feel both unease and peace. This sense of peace, or perhaps wholeness, pushes toward another of Johnson's objectives: healing.
Johnson's Anxious Audience paintings filled the walls of the exhibition's largest room, giving the witness the feeling of being on stage, a silent drama where the actors and audience stare at each other and then look away. Hundreds of witnesses fill this room and the work sharply contrasts the show title, Hail We Now Sing Joy. I felt troubled as I sat on a comfortable black bench in the middle of the room. The gaps in the work, the unoccupied spaces, made me sad. Why weren't they here with us?
At the back of the gallery is a separate reading room that includes multiple copies of the books in Antione's Organ, along with some comfy seating. A handful of people browsed the books, another handful read intently despite the bustling opening: witnesses.
The curation of the show is standard. The work is grouped by series: Antione's organ in the first room, Escape Collages in another, Falling Men in another, Anxious Audience in another, and the reading room in the back. I can't help but wonder how a single room of work would change my experience. Instead of progressing from relative calm to significant distress, what sort of emotional cacophony would I witness?
Gregg Bordowitz asked me (as I'm sure he has asked Johnson and hundreds more of those he teaches), where does the emotion lie? in the artist? the artwork? the viewer? My answer is in the experience of the work. It is at the level of experience that the viewer witnesses the work. (John Dewey pronounced so much with his seminal text Art as Experience.) Now, I think art objects can be witnesses as well. Perhaps Johnson would agree.