Double Consciousness: Ann Johnson at Hooks-Epstein Gallery

Ann Johnson, You can’t see, 2017
intaglio, embossing, found objects
22 x 8 x 4”

Ann Johnson, We must protect this house, 2016
found objects, gold leaf, transparence
31 1/2 x 8 3/4 x 1 1/4”

You can’t see, shortened from the phrase “You can’t see how you see me,” is an exhibition and body of work by Ann Johnson that addresses a plethora of issues facing people and communities of color today.  On view at Hooks-Epstein Gallery through May 13, the exhibition touches on both gentrification and immigration, but the focus of the work is the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements. In her statement, Johnson states that she references “double consciousness,” a term coined by W.E.B. DuBois regarding the necessity of African Americans having to view themselves through the eyes of others.

The artist holds a vested interest both in this idea, which becomes a means of survival for people of color, and in the lens through which viewers interpret her work. Johnson teases this idea out in the works on view, playing with the ideas of perspective and perception by making use of glasses and sunglasses.

It’s a different direction from the artist’s past work, often portraits found printed on feathers, leaves, and other fragile objects. While these are also in the exhibition, Johnson has redeveloped their presentation. Hung as a trio, Nesting Charles, We must protect this house, and Mama’s boy collectively form a sort of falling altar, reminiscent of a dilapidated house in a gentrifying neighborhood. The altar honors the history and individuals of a community, turning the objects into memorials. Nesting Charles and Mama’s boy each hang framed in found wood that houses portraits printed on feathers and leaves that rest above hair picks with fists raised in solidarity. These two artworks surround We must protect this house, the shape of which brings church windows to mind as it presents a series of portraits laid over gold leaf.

In a similar nod to religious icons, Johnson has constructed a series of totems out of other found objects. Encased in containers and stacked, the objects vary with the subject matter but for the most part consist of either glasses or sunglasses. Glasses as a reference to perspective may seem a bit on the nose, but this works well for the artist’s presentation of double consciousness. The titular pieces you can’t see and how you see me work in tandem to make this idea crystal clear, in case it wasn’t already. With you can’t see, Johnson again presents a portrait printed on a leaf and encased in the top container in a stack of five. Like many of the others in the exhibition, the container is embossed with a slew of phrases, including “say her name” and “she matters.” Below this portrait, a series of glasses show the message “You can’t see what I can see / You blind baby! / You blind to the facts.”

how you see me features another feather portrait. An African American woman faces the camera, holding a white child. Her dress and demeanor and the style of the portrait point to it being a historical image perhaps of a slave or indentured servant (perhaps my assumption proves Johnson’s point). Regardless, it drives home the double consciousness notion of which DuBois wrote, and around which Johnson has built this body of work, feeling it is necessary as a means of protecting herself.

You can’t see is a thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition of Johnson’s work. Beyond her considerate approach to the subject matter, it shows growth and experimentation in her practice. Additional works by Johnson are on view at Art League Houston in How Do I Say Her Name?, an exhibition curated by Johnson featuring direct responses to the Say Her Name movement by local women artists of color. How Do I Say Her Name? is on view through May 6.