Grace Johnson: A Clean Still Life

Grace Johnson is a New York-based figurative painter whose practice explores humorous tropes of “clean” living, foods, pseudo-religious health fads and the constant battle for validation in self-reflection.


Grace Johnson
Ecstasy at Soul (2015)
60″ x 48″
Courtesy of the artist
One part of your work explores still life subject matter in conceptual paintings with comical titles like “Follow the Blue Print” and “Healing Foods for the Age of Enlightenment”.  How do you see the subject of these still life’s humorous tone in relation to a painting like “Ecstasy at Soul”?  Is it all part of a larger narrative?

My work is really inspired by the idea of “clean” foods, soul cycle, and lifestyle gurus as sort of a pseudo-religion.  It’s a very serious or classical presentation of these items, as though they’re almost holy objects, and the titles make it clear that it’s all pretty tongue-in-cheek.

That said, I always say that if you’re looking for a religion, you could do a lot worse, and maybe not much better. Eating well and working out really does improve most people’s confidence, and though I’ve seen semi-serious arguments over the merits of soul cycle vs. flywheel, no blood has ever been spilled. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford the ludicrous prices of cold-pressed juice and fitness classes, it’s a decent way to go.

Grace Johnson
Healing Foods for the Age of Enlightenment (the Master Cleanse), 2015
20″ x 24″
Courtesy of the artist
You turn the view on yourself in paintings, in particular ” Battle Trenches” and #Thighgap to point at details of your body.  I think placing the hashtag on the title is brilliant because it immediately welcomes in a discussion or an interaction in the same way labeling something online with it might.  What inspired these self-portraits?

To be honest, my body probably pops up in my art because it takes up a lot of space in my head.  Like many women, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time angsting over cellulite or worrying over a two pound weight gain.  When you think about anything that much, it tends to spill into your art.

Grace Johnson
Follow the Blueprint (2016)
22″ x 30″
Courtesy of the artist

The hashtag definitely brings instagram into it, for me. Much has been written about the effect of social media on girls’ self-esteem.  Suffice to say, the age of selfies and bikini shots hasn’t been great for young women on the whole.

Grace Johnson
Battle Trenches (self-portrait), 2015
16″ x 16″
Courtesy of the artist
Some of your figurative work is placed in a wash of color and pattern like spaces of tiles or flowers.  I am wondering about this choice of background.  It is different from the solid greys and counter tops of your still life series.

A couple of years ago I was very interested in working from sketches.  Since I was coming to the canvas with limited information, it was my way of filling in the blanks.  The painting became about the capabilities of oil paint and building abstraction around a figure.

Grace Johnson
#THIGHGAP (2015)
18″ x 18″
Courtesy of the artist

With the more recent still lifes, I’m pretty much staring at a row of bottles for days or weeks on end and can get as fussy as I want to with every last shadow. I tend to keep the backgrounds very simple to keep the focus on the objects.

You mentioned that you have started to get into painting the fonts on the labels.  Does that start to inform your decision on what to paint or not paint?

Absolutely. I probably wouldn’t have painted a butt in Calvin Klein’s if I didn’t think I could paint the logo… it becomes as much about the brand as it does the body.  People have very strong associations with Juice Press, SoulCycle, etc.

Grace Johnson
Matcha I (2015)
36″ x 36″
Courtesy of the artist
Your Matcha series is iconic and has evolved into a small series.  The shift in scale is interesting and kind of otherworldly like a moon rock.

For a couple of years before I started painting or drinking Matcha, everyone seemed to be proselytizing about it. “It reduces stress! Increases your metabolism! Detoxifies the body! Strengthens your immune system!” That alone was sort of interesting to me. Can it also ward off evil spirits? Prevent clumsiness? Make me appreciate jazz?

I started taking pictures of all of my food last fall, thinking I might use them for a project. The matcha photos always stood out to me—I fell in love with the bubbles and the color.  In extreme close-ups, they felt a little magical.

You come out of a school of drawing.  Currently, of the moment, what materials do you favor?

I’m wild about sumi ink. It builds beautifully, in a way that feels related to oil paint.

The artist in her studio

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