Peter Christian Johnson
Interview with Peter Christian Johnson
Questions by Andreana Donahue
Hi Peter. You’ve said that art and art-making didn’t interest you growing up, but from a young age you did work for you father’s small construction company. Looking back on this now, in what ways did this experience shape your identity as an artist?
It took a long time to realize how much of an impact working for my father has had on my career as an artist, but now I see how it informs the way I think about making. I feel more comfortable with terms like building, constructing, and engineering over sculpting and I still think of my sketches and drawings as blueprints and plans. It probably fostered my interest in architecture and my appreciation for engineering, problem solving, and physical labor.
What motivated the transition to ceramics from your initial interest in Environmental Science and pre-med in college?
I still clearly remember standing at the threshold of applying to medical school after years of studying science wondering if the unstable path of being an artist was something I had the strength to pursue. Late in my college studies a single professor’s passion for art began to open up a new understanding of the power of an image, an object, of metaphor and abstraction. He convinced me that art was visual philosophy and that it had the power to create meaning in a way that written language could not. Eventually, with my science degree in tow, I started down the path of understanding the world and myself through making art.
Can you tell us about some artists or architects who have influenced you, whose work continues to provide inspiration?
Right now I am sort of obsessed with Felix Candela who pioneered shell structure architecture. There is this image of the construction of Chapel Lomas de Cuernavaca in Cuernavaca, Mexico that continues to haunt and inspire me. I also look at a number of Japanese architects like Sou Fujimoto and Kengo Kuma. As for art, there are so many, Gordon Matta-Clark, Wolfgang Laib, Tim Hawkinson, Rachel Whiteread, Richard Long, Adrian Villar Rojas, Leonardo Drew, Kathy Butterly, Ron Nagle, just to name a few.
Porcelain has a reputation for being durable and pristine, yet often temperamental to work with. Why have you chosen this material specifically?
For many of the reasons you already mentioned. There is this false purity or preciousness that porcelain has which I am interested in exploiting. I also want to believe that the difficulty and absurdity of the material provides another conceptual layer. Working with porcelain is sort of a Sisyphean task that often results in two steps forward one step back. It also has this beautiful pyroplastic nature that allows it to stretch, warp, and sag in the heat of the firing process yet come out vitreous and solid from the kiln. Together, these elements allow for the sense of tragic beauty that I am interested in.
You often use historic blueprints and detailed research of Gothic cathedrals as source material. What features of this architecture are you especially drawn to?
Originally, I was drawn to the formal qualities of the historic blueprints, but the more I researched the history of these cathedrals the more I realized how they related conceptually to themes I explore in my work. I see Gothic cathedrals as Herculean feats of engineering. It is almost beyond my comprehension that many of them took three generations and over 100 years to complete. I am interested in that idealism and hope that exists within the act of constructing these buildings which I find so fraught with contradictions. Now that they exist largely as tourist sites they ironically parallel the biblical story of the Tower of Babel where the human pursuit of perfection ultimately exposes our own finiteness and failure.
Computer modeling is a tool you use for abstracting architectural designs and creating blueprints to efficiently work from. Can you talk about your desire to re-imagine and transform rather than replicate existing forms?
I see the power of abstraction lying in its ability to allow something to reference multiple things at one time. I am interested in my work alluding to architecture, structure, scaffolding, or fabricated systems without becoming architectural models. Computer modeling assists in a number of ways. First, it allows me to test out a number of forms before committing to the arduous task of building them. Secondly, it aids in the engineering process by helping calculating dimensions and troubleshooting how something might be built in the studio.
You’ve devised a methodical, time-intensive method of hand-building sculptures using thousands of extruded clay components. Can you walk us through your overall process?
I typically use the computer to generate a paper blueprint or floorpan and then systematically construct the sculpture from small extruded pieces of porcelain. Much like building something from popsicle sticks or toothpicks. I want the work to reflect the fact that they are assembled over time. This commitment of time and labor then provides a level of honesty to the poetry that hopefully exists in their eventual distortion and collapse.
In the kiln you allow meticulous, lattice-like structures to distort and partially collapse, often under the weight of thick glazes. How do you decide when to stop the firing process?
I sight fire most of my work, which means I am regularly looking into the kiln as I fire the forms. I track the slow collapse of the form and the fluid transformation of the glaze and try and shut the kiln off at a moment that holds the right amount of tension, hopefully right before the piece collapses entirely. Needless to say there is a lot of trial and error to get a sculpture to have the right balance of tragedy and beauty.
What is the nature of your relationship with imperfection and failure?
I think imperfection and failure define what it means to be human.
Works in your recent Acts of Contrition series borrow titles from short stories by Flannery O’Connor. What elements of her writing do you find compelling? Is there a connection between her use of symbolism or recurring thematic concerns and your work?
I have always been drawn to Flannery O’Connor for the same reasons I like Dostoevsky or Walker Percy. They do such an incredible job of creating this haunting picture of the beauty found amongst the broken shambles of their characters’ lives. In their works, it is often the most despicable and flawed character that exposes the vast potential for kindness. Their narratives weave together the contradictions that exist in the human condition and seemingly argue that our potential for goodness grows out of our failure and brokenness. To me that just rings true and I try and capture some of that same contradiction in my work.
For your recent exhibition at Sculpture Space NYC, you presented multiple works on tiered pedestals that are also reminiscent of scaffolding. Can you elaborate on this installation and recent body of work?
For this exhibition I really wanted to examine the way the pieces I make exist in a space. Scaffolding has a formal relationship to my work and metaphorical implication of something being under construction. I begin thinking more intently about scaffolding in 2016 when the dome of the U.S. capitol building was shrouded in scaffolding for much of the year. The image to me was so poetic and seemed to embody much of the anxiety I felt after the 2016 election. For my exhibition at Sculpture Space NYC I wanted to employ an abstracted version of scaffolding to network a number of pieces together. I became increasingly interested in the relationship that grew between objects and the dialogue they created when they were presented together. Scaffolding seemed to make formal and conceptual sense as a means to do this.
You live and work in Kent, Ohio. Can you tell us about your current studio? What is a typical day like for you?
My studio is on the campus of Kent State University where I teach. It is sort of centered in the middle of the ceramic program with a large window that allows me to keep an eye on my students but also makes everything I do pretty public. I am not sure my typical day is very exciting. I drop my kids off at school and get to the studio by 8:30 and leave each day around 5:30. I do this Monday through Friday regardless of whether I teach and I try to sneak in as much studio time as I can between meetings. I pretty much keep these hours during every break and throughout the summer. Evenings and weekends are set aside for the family with the understanding that I will come back to the studio in the evening after the kids are in bed if I am up against a deadline. It may seem a bit over structured, but it keeps things clear for me and helps me balance my responsibilities.
You seem to have a remarkably strong work ethic. What is the most challenging aspect of your creative process?
The biggest challenge of my creative process is, without a doubt, finding long periods of uninterrupted time in the studio. Working in two hour blocks does not lead to the headspace I need to be intuitive. This makes the summer and other breaks so precious, along with the occasional Friday I don’t have a meeting.
At home you’ve built a greenhouse and pole barn for your family to use, whereas your sculptures are realizations of ideas. Do you see these endeavors as entirely separate or is there an overlap?
They are related in that they both involve building, and in that I am always excited to see the thing I had in my mind completed. However, actual construction is pretty straight forward and there are a number of rules you have to follow in order for the building to function. In art, all the excitement comes from breaking the rules, from taking risks and experimenting, from engineering something that might fail beautifully.
Who are some contemporary artists you feel your work is in conversation with?
I feel a little too self-conscious to think of it as a conversation, but I am interested in some of the same questions that I see other contemporary artists also engaging with. I am drawn to meticulously assembled objects because of the commitment and physical labor they require and I imagine artists like Wolfgang Laib, Tim Hawkinson, and Tom Friedman are in some way interested in related questions. I am continually inspired by giants like Anselm Keifer and Antony Gormley for the way they examine the fragile nature of the human condition—something I hope that my work in some small way also examines.
Can you share your perspective on the impact of technology and social media on contemporary art or our current culture in general?
Like many people, I loath social media yet I make little effort to escape from using it. I think, for me, it leads to an overexposure of images and information without providing much substance. I think it packages cultural trends at an incredibly rapid pace that I can’t help but think effects the art we make. On the other hand, it provides visibility to artists that previously never had access to exposure and it helps network and connect artist throughout the world. It has helped to further democratize the art world and in a small way decentralize the power structure.
You’re currently an Assistant Professor at Kent State University and were previously at Eastern Oregon University for eleven years. How has your experience as an educator strengthened your own practice? Are there certain qualities or approaches you find essential to progressing as an artist that you impart when teaching?
I consider it to be a real privilege to be an educator where I get to work with students and share ideas on a daily basis. I think it feeds my practice in that it keeps me engaged with the art world and keeps me regularly challenged. The older I get the more I believe in learning through your hands, or through making, rather than front-loading your ideas. I think I make the best work when I am not quite sure what I am doing, where the work is right out in front of my understanding and I am trying to chase that understanding down in the studio through making and analyzing. This manifests in the classroom by trying to help students find their voice as artist by analyzing what they have made to discover what their unique perspective on the world might be rather than analyzing their ideas or what they want to make before they have made it. This, of course, requires making a lot of work, so that that your voice percolates out of your exploration and commitment.
What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately?
Honestly, I have been reading way too many books on farming lately. I am trying to catch up to my wife’s level of expertise so I can help co-manage the small micro-farm and CSA that we run. As for tv, nothing inspires me to get into the studio like watching the Chef’s Table on Netflix. I am working my way through “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett , I just picked up a copy of “Fewer Better Things” by Glenn Adamson, and I am rereading “Shell Structures for Architecture; Form Finding and Optimization” which is an Architectural Text book with a lot of math that goes over my head.
Is there an artist residency experience that has particularly resonated with you or been the most beneficial to your development?
A number of years ago I was able to be a year-long resident artist at the Archie Bray Foundation while I was on sabbatical. I can’t overstate how magical that year was on my practice. I had long uninterrupted days in a beautiful studio surrounded by an amazingly generous group of artists that continue to support me to this day. That dedicated time for risk taking and the dialogue I had with other artist over that year lead to a growth in my work that I am still drawing from.
What are you working on right now? Do you have any upcoming projects, exhibitions, residencies, or other news you’d like to share?
Right now I am still digesting my recent exhibition at Sculpture Space NYC while beginning a new body of work for a couple of exhibitions next year that is still in its early stages. I am part of an upcoming exhibition at the Canton Museum of Art called Drafting Dimensions that opens in April and I have exhibitions scheduled at the Jane Hartsook gallery in New York and Eutectic gallery in Portland, Oregon later on in 2019.