At the turn of the 20th century, in 1901 to be specific, the Glasgow International Exhibition took place in the surroundings of Kelvingrove Park, almost at the same time that Australia, a British colony settled since the 18th century, began its rather precarious struggle for independence. The Glasgow International, following the pseudo‐Baroque style introduced in major world expositions in cities such as Chicago, Brussels and Paris, was a kind of world expo, showcasing ‘the world’ as an Oriental cabinet of curiosities, in the light of the optimism characteristic of the industrialization period and the confidence of a world largely divided between colonizers and colonized. In the colonial context of exhibition making however, to exhibit meant to have seen and discarded, to enclose, to codify and to rip apart; it meant ultimately to conquer and to forget.
Opposite the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, designed by James Miller for the International Exhibition, stands now the Kelvin Hall, built in 1927 after a temporary wooden structure built also for the International Exhibition was destroyed by a fire in 1925. When painter Helen Johnson, born at the end of 1970s Australia to British parents, was invited to take part in yet another international exhibition at the hall–this time during Glasgow International, a biennial of contemporary art being held since 2005, perhaps it became necessary for her to intervene, or excavate the site and rearrange the logic of what it means to be ‘exhibited’ in this venue assuming the position of a post-colonial subject. This position is neither that of ‘other’ nor of mediator, but it is rather that of an intrasubjective misrecognition: The subjects are antagonistic in regard to their own configuration.
The resources of painting, however, are limited if we understand the medium as a closed semantic field that is emplaced onto the exhibition site without interrupting the architectural morphology of history. Painting possesses neither the reverberation of sound nor the actuality of the object in its horizon of finitude. Yet, breaking out of the traditional dichotomy between figuration –the painting is about something, and abstraction –the painting is a thing or some thing, the artist’s choice here is to metastasize the condition of history onto a number of symbolic coordinates that have been repurposed from other systems of reference. The historical paintings at the surface –rather than center, of this exhibition, are not a restaging of an event –ironically or otherwise, but a critique of the domain shared between political myths and the actual reality at the level of nation‐building.
Treating classical Western tropes such as the Rape of Europa or the Minotaur in her paintings, is for Johnson not a canonical appraisal or an affirmative mechanism of reverse historicism –she is not smashing the idols, but establishing an internal dialogue between two interdependent subjectivities: White Australian history as both subject and object of history –subjective is here a two‐fold construction encompassing both the subject as agent and the subject as private property. In ‘The Rape of Europa (Australian Version)’ (2016), based on an eponymous work by Guido Reni (1639), instead of approaching Crete, modern‐day Zeus and Europa approach the sea as an open territory of incommensurability. It is not only the boundless expansionism of an omnivorous polity but also the suspension of both legality and accountability in the status of the extraordinary –and therefore beyond politics, characteristic of Australia’s relationship to its immediate neighborhood: Co‐opting sovereign states as either illegal detention centers or sources of wealth and maneuvering in geopolitics while at the same time playing referee: History as cynicism.
A similar but more complex gesture is introduced in ‘My Word’ (2016) which migrates imagery from two different artworks: Paolo Uccello’s damaged fresco ‘Deluge’ (1447) and Australian early modern painter Julian Ashton’s ‘The Prospector’ (1889), both interpreted to the latter’s place in history during the gold rush in colonial Victoria, creating a multi‐referential plot to address the dynamics of wealth and power from the viewpoint of white history. Yet this would be too simple, too deceptive, if such manner of cross-referencing were the only mechanism deployed; there is nothing invasive up to this point. For the time being Johnson is mimicking the dynamics of early Australian painting and its charade of turning to Romantic mythology in order to portray the island not as a colony but as an extension of the Western world -its outermost border.
One would immediately assume that in an exhibition such as this, the paintings would be framed in gilded décor and shown alongside the classics, as if to create mutual mimesis, but this is when the exhibition opens up and devours the rhetorical precision of Kelvin Hall: The large scale canvases are displayed unstretched, suspended from the ceiling in the foyer of the hall, creating new relational fields between them –shades and frames, tones and frameworks, that act on the site as colorful on a civilizational master narrative. All of the paintings can be viewed from both sides, and on the back,there are notes, passages and images –it is unclear whether they are painted or inscribed, introducing the notion of source as reflection and vice versa, as if contemplating works displayed in a labyrinth of mirrors –and the history of ideology is one such labyrinth.
Here it becomes necessary to return to the idea of surface: If the heart of the exhibition is not the surface image, or the relational field, where is the actual painting? Central to Helen Johnson’s practice is the notion of criticality, informed by Kant, by means of which painting in the post‐medium era, has to be not rehabilitated –from the powers that be, but expanded in order to embody parallelism of truth without mediation; painting is not a translation of something else, but a meeting point between different modes of articulation, by virtue of which it remains forever unstable and therefore more sensible to aporia. ‘Barron Field’, easily construed as a misspelling -and largely dealing with misrecognition, is titled after a British man who was appointed in 1816 to become a Supreme Court judge in Australia and whose poetry sought to bring Australia under the political classicism of the Romantics.
In ‘Colonial Reef’ (2016), the mechanism of invisibility that is alibi to the re-writing of history in a colonial cycle has come full circle, and the metastasis is almost complete; the host organism has become spectral, a figure of latency that might awaken anytime but whose language has become unrecognizable, here the palimpsest has been rendered unreadable for the future. It is almost a tradition in both American and Australian painting of the early modern period to depict the land either as a pristine untouched territory, or as the site of a classical myth, which in both cases translated into an empty unpeopled barren land almost God‐given to the white man, after overcoming ‘certain’ few obstacles. Helen Johnson resists the urge to narrate these paintings as history and instead has turned to allegory and superposition, demonstrating the many frauds of the civilization process while remaining committed to a process in which the artwork is always content, form and doubt above all.