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Reasons to Fall for Merritt Johnson’s Video Work at UMOCA’s Codec Gallery

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” So Charles Dickens characterized the French Revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. So we may pray writers in the future will reflect on our plight today. In any event, it certainly can be said of this moment in art history. While the world is full of wonderful art, it can also be dreary times for the arts congregation. Consider how entire exhibitions are devoted to preaching to the choir on shopworn topics ranging from civil rights to the environment. Even seeming good news, like the mainstream culture’s belated discovery that men have been treating women badly since . . . well, since forever . . . precedes the inevitable sequel, when galleries will fill with righteous lectures from artists who sincerely believe they have bravely discovered something women, and even some men, have known about for years. After all, when Anita Hill was singled out to be humiliated by the U.S. Senate for repeating what a dozen of her fellow workers were saying about their harassment by Clarence Thomas, the head of the Congressional agency designated to police abuse in the workplace, and some talking head on TV, sententiously announced that it’s no longer OK for bosses to chase their secretaries around the desk, even then there was one woman in the audience who shouted back: “It never was OK.”

Elsewhere in art, just this month, there came the news that two of the art world’s best-known figures have fallen on hard times. First Damien Hirst’s comeback show in Venice, featuring untold millions of dollars spent on bad taste and worse judgment, was roundly panned by disappointed collectors and burned out critics. Then it came out that Jeff Koons’ gift in solidarity to the people of France, made in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks two years ago, was to be imposed unilaterally on a Parisian neighborhood long devoted to celebrating the French and American shared love of democracy. Alert observers will note that these two career setbacks, like the Harvey Weinstein scandal, only became possible after the men in question fell from power. In the latter case, the market grew weary of the way these two art giants have made millions repeating a few once-welcome, now-exhausted tropes over and over as if there were no new artists or new ideas waiting in the wings.

So it is that UMOCA’s Codec Gallery has become my favorite venue in the last year or so. Maybe because of its Goldilocks character—not too large, not too small, not too public, not too private—this dark corner of our most reliable Contemporary venue has become the place where lighthearted and accessible art shines like the light at the end of the tunnel. During the recent Saudi show—surely among the best exhibitions in years—the Arabian equivalent of “Saturday Night Live” or “Monty Python” ran continuously in Codec, and while not as well gender-balanced as the rest of the show, it worked like dessert does in a good meal, capping off the savory works on the main floor with a palette cleansing (and perspective restoring) dose of satire, including a hummable song to sing to oneself while returning to the workaday world.

In case it’s not clear from the above, for me the best art is the most complete art. It uses as many senses, directly or by induction, to cover as much as possible of the range of human experience, with as many layers as possible. As it happens, a small portion of a larger work that does this in exemplary fashion has just arrived in Codec. The basic format of Merritt Johnson’s Exorcising America mimics one of the most fundamental forms of authoritarian information distribution: a form so essential as to be almost universally applied. Like porn, rats, and many other successful pests, the illustrated discourse has adapted to a wide variety of niches, and shows a special skill at adapting to new niches as they appear. Thus what was an academic lecture for centuries became a film strip, then a Power Point presentation, and here mimics an online video in which Merritt Johnson, like many DIY versions seen online today, plays both the part of the omniscient narrator and the model who demonstrates what the voice dictates.

Johnson is a multidisciplinary artist, capable of playing all the parts: writer, director, narrator, actor, set- and prop-maker, and so on. The genius she builds into her brief exorcisms lies in their internal contradictions, which are subtle, deliberate, and ubiquitous. In places, the unified surface of the model-slash-actress comes apart: cracks in the character being played reveal the struggle of the woman playing her to live up to too many or inconsistent demands. In others, the voiceover drones on cluelessly, in spite of fatal flaws revealed in its script. And then, sometimes the voiceover decouples from the model, with instructions that are too demanding, inconsistent, or come too fast. In a piece subtitled “Lines of Communication,” the metaphoric lines are made concrete as she demonstrates how to make a tin can telephone—the “line” being only visually obviously a length of string. In another, titled “Water Safety,” the danger turns out to have nothing to do with the customary danger, drowning, but rather with how to use water that has been poisoned by industrial waste when no other option remains.

Johnson brings a powerful mix of cultural influences, including Kanienkehaka (more commonly called Mohawk), Blackfoot, Irish, and Swedish heritage to the table . . . speaking of which, anyone who has ever sought and been denied a role in speaking to power could profit from studying her “Table Exercises.” And speaking of negotiating with power, Johnson’s recently updated performance piece, “Waving the White Flag,” with its gorgeous visuals and painful glimpses of the artist, once again makes the point that it is not the supplicant who deserves our contempt. “Waving the White Flag” could well be paired with “Taking A Fall,” one of the two chapters of Exorcising America currently in Codec. Watch for the moment when the reasons one might need to know how to fall—i.e. just who might knock one down—are listed and she enumerates them on her fingers . . . until, that is, she runs out of fingers.

It’s very strange and alienating to read mainstream critics on Merritt Johnson’s art: particularly those who ignore her ethical and social issues and talk about her work as if mere aesthetics covered it, or hers was a story of bootstrapping one’s way into the world, when it couldn’t be more obvious that she will settle for nothing less than a fully-empowered voice in the social discourse. Then again, all art serves the function of making visible what otherwise would not, or could not, be seen. Johnson, whose individual skills far outstrip many of today’s better- known artists (some of who pride themselves on a lack of personal skill) deliberately employs her drawing and sculpting talents in specific efforts to render the invisible visible. We can seek out those works ourselves, and we can hope that Utah art venues will follow UMOCA’s lead, and bring a more extensive assortment of her compelling work, ideally including her presence, to a state that offers her a special fit.

Merritt Johnson: Exorcising AmericaUtah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, until May 12.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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