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Denatured Animals at Brown

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   The Simen Johan exhibition, “Until the Kingdom Comes,” at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University in Providence escaped my notice until now. The exhibition of Johan’s large-format color photographs of strangely disturbing animals has been up since November and will come down February 17.

      Simen Johan was born in Norway and came to theUnited States in 1992 to study at the School of Visual Arts. As photography made its aggressive move on the fine art world, Johan was one of those adulterators who early on made heavy use of Photoshop to create cyber-surreal tableaux, many seemingly inspired by or aspiring to children’s fairy tales.

      Johan’s “Until the Kingdom Comes” bestiary began in 2006 and consists of large (five foot dimensions and more) color photographs of animals taken in zoos and wildlife parks, on farms and using taxidermy and road kill and altered more subtly such that there is something peculiar and “off” about them. These are not animals in nature. They are denatured fauna meant “to confuse the boundaries between opposing forces, such as the familiar and the otherworldly, the natural and the artificial, the amusing and the eerie.”

   So, for example, we have a great dirty bison resting quietly in a landfill, a pair of flamingoes doing the flamingo, a grass-stained sheep sitting up on his haunches (the farmer who held him in this awkward position Photoshopped out), a rhino reclining on a beach, and a pair of bull moose fighting in an arid landscape that looks as though it hasn’t seen a moose since the Ice Age.   

      Johan’s moose remind me of “The Final Charge,” the moose at L.L. Bean stuffed just as they died and were found in the wild, antlers locked together for eternity. Johan has his own version of this mortal combat in a photograph of a pair of caribou frozen in death, horns locked around a tree.

   Animals are always entertaining subjects and Johan’s photo trickery adds to the fascination, which for the artist is “an existential search for spiritual and philosophical truth.” I suppose there is an element of the apocalypse to “Until the Kingdom Comes” as Johan’s animals await the peaceable kingdom, but mostly the philosophical inquiry here is one of epistemology – how images convey and contain meaning.

   Simen Johan belongs to a generation of photo-artists for whom photographic technology is no longer a means of apprehending reality. Everyone now knows that photographs are cunning lies. So Johan used photography to create a reality, a fiction but a convincing one.

   The beauty of these beasts is that they can be enjoyed simply for their curiosity factor or they can be appreciated as exercises in the creation of meaning.

[David Winton Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University,64 College St.,Providence RI, 401-863-2932.]

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