David Johnson is an artist, educator, and curator based in St. Louis, MO. He received an MFA in Visual Art from Washington University in St. Louis in 2007 and earned his BFA in Studio Art with an emphasis in Photography from Texas Christian University. In 2011, David was awarded the Great Rivers Visual Arts Award from the Gateway Foundation. This biennial award culminated with his 2012 exhibition institutional etiquette and strange overtones at the Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, including the Contemporary Art Museum Saint Louis, Mildred Lane Kemper Museum, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, National Building Museum in Washington D.C. and Rathaus Stuttgart, Germany. His work can be found in the collection at The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Don’t Take Pictures, the Humble Arts Foundation, and Lenscratch have featured his work online. David has curated exhibitions for Center of Creative Arts, Paul Artspace, the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum and the Weitman Gallery at Washington University in St. Louis. Currently, Johnson is a Lecurer at Saint Louis University and Washington University in St. Louis.

PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: Wig Heavier than a Boot

2015 – 2017

Wig Heavier Than a Boot brings together photography by David Johnson and poetry by Philip Matthews. Revealing Petal—a drag consciousness as whom Matthews manifests to write, and Johnson photographs—the project crosses art-making rituals with isolated performances within domestic spaces and pastoral landscapes. Taken together, the resulting photographs and poems reveal dynamic relationships between author, character, and observer. By articulating a specific creative process in which one identity becomes two, the project in turn opens up a conversation about gender expression through an art-historical lens.

The photographs provide one record of author and character, blurring art-historical masculine and feminine postures. The poems provide another, which elaborate upon the lived experience of being, modeling, and sometimes, obscuring Petal. Subverting the ekphrastic literary tradition, Matthews’ poems do not respond to Johnson’s photographs, nor vice-versa. Both forms are made in the present: as Johnson directs the shoot, Matthews makes performance notes that give way to the poem. In this process, Johnson and Matthews continually break open and leverage their own biases and desires to create an authentic body of work.

Petal is alternately present and not, like a nonphysical entity invoked by a medium. The photographs capture the blend or distinction between Philip and Petal, and the poems hybridize their perspectives, enacting a relationship that is surreal, empowering, and unbearable, as the project title suggests. What is constant is a sense of a person wanting to belong to the place that hosts them (i.e. farmland in rural Wisconsin, the coast of North Carolina, an art museum in St. Louis, a small church), even or especially when the social norms of that place are felt to ostracize
them. Both photographs and poems balance narrative with fragmentation and invite multiple interpretations.

Foundation 010 - 2017 © David Johnson

RT 050 - 2014 © David Johnson

Paul’s 017 - 2015 © David Johnson

When and where did Wig Heavier Than a Boot begin?

Philip and I have known each other since 2012―from the St. Louis arts community and we both have master degrees from Washington University in St. Louis: Writing and Visual Arts respectively. But this project got its start around a campfire. Phil and I were attending The Luminary’s Float 2014: (Collective) Isolation with Radical Intention (an Italian collective), a kind of artist residency/workshop on the Black River in Southern Missouri. The group went through many exercises on consensus practices and listening techniques; we would end up discussing adding “radical optimism” to our creative practices and how to “ride the tiger.” One of the exercises was that each participant, at the end of the day, was allowed to share their work. Phil had discussed the creation of Petal via a project with Carly Ann Faye, another St. Louis artist. I was pretty intrigued with his creative process. Later, around the campfire, I asked Phil if he was “interested in working with another artist/photographer.” Yaelle Amir, a curator and fellow participant said, “Phil, I think Dave is asking if you would be willing to work with him.” Phil said, “yes.”

Initially, the project was going to be this series of images that placed Petal within a Mad Hatter tea party meets Andy Warhol factory party, in the middle of the woods with large construction moonlight. After our first photo session, when we took STL 009, the image with Phil touching his nose, and a few others, we realized the project was going to be way more personal and introspective, which it has been. For me, most projects start because I’m eager to learn something new, or I want to do something I hadn’t attempted. With Phil, I’d never spent so much time photographing one body before; I had not worked with a writer and writing lineage. I was also interested in ideas of the relationships between author, character, and observer―what that meant and where my place might be. 

Notable experiences, yeah: Petal turned into this muse/guru figure for both of us; she is/was/will be present in a mystical sense. Phil and I have become pretty close friends: I’m grateful for that. And as a creative colleague, Phil has a gift of understanding where creative practices impact everyday life and vice-versa. I think this project has allowed each of us to focus on our creative endeavors with a new seriousness I had not known before. This project taught me a lot about, helped me find greater understanding about, defining gender, queer culture, and language―and what it means to be an ally. There have been many gifts from this project; I’m still learning of them.

Where do you see this project going?

We finished shooting this fall after an impactful portfolio review I had the previous summer. I’m glad that we did one last shoot in St. Louis in October. I feel that my presence as the photographer is firmed up, and Phil’s presence and power are also more clearly defined. This winter, Phil and I edited a final book proposal, and are now sending it out to publishers. We hope to have this book of 34 photos and 26 poems coming out soon. Wig Heavier Than A Boot has been shown in St. Louis, and this month in Central Texas. As we seek out publishing opportunities, we are also seeking out exhibition spaces. Hopefully, we will continue to have exhibitions where the installations include photographs, wall-mounted poems, and video works across the country and globe. We also try to organize readings with local poets wherever we have exhibitions.

What helps you sustain your current creative practice?

I can’t imagine a day where something relating to visual art doesn’t cross my path; I kind of fear that day. I teach part-time at a couple of universities in St. Louis, and run a small freelance business documenting art exhibitions for galleries and museums. I also help run the artist residency Paul Artspace, and sometimes have been known to do some art handling on the side. So yeah, I do get to be creative almost every day! I recently relocated to a space that is my home and studio. On studio days, I walk from the kitchen with some coffee across the living room to my studio room and get to work. There is always something to do or an email to write, so staying productive isn’t much of an issue. I just keep the action going. I’m a pretty social person, so meeting people at openings or studio visits is essential and provides energy. Seeing SPE or Fotofest or art residency friends from other places a few times a year is vital to my creative identity, which also means I’m traveling, which helps me think outside the studio. Live music might be the most significant motivating force for studio work. Show me a great rock concert or eloquent songwriter and I’ll be chomping at the bit to get in and start working; similar to record and photo book night: just me, the tunes, and my collection of photography books.

What’s next for you?

Along with Wig Heavier Than A Boot, I finished another project this year called It Can Be This Way Always, a ten-year documentary project where I’ve been photographing the Kerrville Folk Festival. It’s also a book project that I’m currently working on editing: ten years of 4x5 scans. The folk festival’s 50 anniversary is coming up in 2020, and I’m working on getting some more exhibitions together. One of my projects for Paul Artspace is to set up Artist Exchanges with St. Louis’ Sister Cities. We’ve created a working model with a residency in Stuttgart, Germany that will be in full swing this summer. I hope to find and work with other cities in the future, where we can send a St. Louis artist across the world. So hopefully that would include some travel and research opportunities. I was in Germany most of last summer because of the exchange idea, which lead to the start of two new bodies of work that will reqiure more travel. In five years, ideally, I keep making art and maybe land a full-time teaching position or non-profit arts administration. I’m also now on the hunt for Khachapuri, a Georgian cheese-filled bread, with an egg and a type of fondue cheese center. It’s delicious.

What other artists should we be keeping an eye on?

So many! A show I curated called Aftermath just came down at WashU. Aftermath featured the work of German-based collaborative duo Frank Bayh & Steff Rosenberger-Ochs, St. Louis-based artist Tim Portlock, and Ryan Woodring, currently based in Portland, Oregon.

I’d also suggest Rachel Cox in Dallas, Anne-Laure Autin from The Hague, Anna Katharina Zeitler from Berlin, and Peter Franck from Stuttgart. And St. Louis friends are blowing up: Jen Everett, Kat Simone Reynolds, Lyndon Barrois Jr., and Jess T. Dugan.