The name of artist Doug Johnston’s first solo exhibition “Brooklyn Nets” is a homage to the place he now calls home, set in the context of where he got his initial inspiration — his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A creative mind clearly inspired by the craft culture of generations before, Johnston’s work is an amalgamation of anthropological descent and architectural thinking. Growing up in Tulsa myself, I can’t help but be particularly drawn to his work. Tulsa is a place reminiscent of any typical suburban town, but also a possesses a rich culture specific to its area — there lie some traces of the Native American cultures that have resided there for hundreds of years as well as references to the Art Deco phenomena of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This kind of layered history can be found in any given place, even a young pup like Canada, and inevitably affects us all in unique ways. I organized a conversation with Doug to talk about his most recent show as well as the importance of ‘place’ in everyone’s lives, his creative practices, and how we come to define who we are.
You just got done with a solo exhibition that took place in your hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. What made you decide to do one of your first large scale shows in your own hometown?
The exhibition came about more organically rather than being a decision that I consciously chose. The art and design community in Tulsa is fairly tight-knit so the gallerist and I had several mutual friends and acquaintances. She had seen my work in Tulsa and in Seattle, and I had heard a lot about her gallery, Exhibit by Aberson, through my friends in Tulsa. I feel like it was somewhat inevitable that we would eventually cross paths, but I didn’t expect she would be interested in showing my work. Kim visitedmy studio while she was in New York last year and we had a really wonderful conversation. Personally I hadn’t met or known anyone living in Tulsa who was so engaged with the world of art so it was very exciting to be able to tie together my love for my hometown and my deep interest in art and design into such an engaging conversation. Kim offered a solo exhibition with free-reign to show the work that I wanted to show, which is kind of a dream come true for any artist or designer. The gallery space is beautiful, in a great part of town, and larger than anything I have had access to before. On top of all that was the wonderful opportunity to share my work directly with my hometown community which includes a large contingent of family and friends. I worked on the pieces for almost a year – working through a lot of ideas that I’ve been wanting to explore for a long time.
What’s the story behind the name of your show, “Brooklyn Nets”?
The name is kind of a humorous play on the name of pro basketball team in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Nets, while encapsulating the general concept of what distinguishes this work from my previous efforts. My work has always been a hybrid of art and design and in that was it almost always involves some level of functionality. For this body of work I wanted to filter out the utilitarian aspects to focus deeply on my interests with the process and the formal and aesthetic results. So the idea of the net as something that captures, filters, and distills down to the essences was a big part of the name. There are several literal net-based pieces in the show that were part of the initial explorations within the body of work and sort of act as anchors in the exhibition. Most of all of the pieces were wall-hanging sculptures or tapestry-like works and the most basket or vessel-like pieces were clearly non-functional. I also liked that the exhibition title spoke to the place where I currently live and work and how it has affected my identity as a Tulsan.
To what extent does the idea of “place” have on your work? How do you think each place you’ve lived has helped shape you as an artist?
I have spent most of my academic and professional career working in architecture, where the idea of place is very loaded and multivalent. As such, I was always encouraged to interpret “place” in a broad sense and I suppose those meditations have embedded themselves in my thinking and hide somewhere in the layers of my work. There is a heavy influence of modern architecture in my thinking and work, which was often criticized as a movement that downplayed or intentionally ignored locality in favor of more universal aspirations. For me that somehow heightened the awareness of place – any object or building is going to fundamentally alter its context and vice versa – so a primary consideration of my work is based on the presence it might have in a place and how the place will in turn affect the perception of the work. Likewise, each place I’ve lived has definitely affected my creative explorations and helped to drive the direction of my work. After my undergraduate studies in Springfield, MO, I returned to Tulsa for a few years to work in architecture. I was highly fascinated with the mid-century modern buildings all over the city and how they spoke to the history of that city and connected it to the global history of that era. That was a really new and exciting view of the city that I had grown up in, connecting my personal history with a broader narrative and encouraged me to explore the world and my work beyond Tulsa. I went to graduate school in the Detroit area, where I discovered its history and fate was very much tied in with that of Tulsa but also was distinct with its rich industrial culture. In Detroit I learned that its ok and very satisfying to indulge in processes and making, which lead me to spend a summer work with Atelier Van Lieshout in Rotterdam. Rotterdam also has a deep industrial culture, but fused with the highly design-focused sensibilities of the Netherlands. I learned so much there! Moving to New York from Detroit, I had to turn my focus to much smaller and inwardly-focused explorations but was also trying to absorb the excitement of the art, architecture, and design communities here. That roundabout path very much shaped what I am doing today and the goals of my work.
I heard that you took a road trip after your exhibition in Tulsa — how was that? Where did you go exactly?
We did and it was wonderful! We (my wife and her parents and I) basically took 2+ weeks to drive from Tulsa to LA, stopping at many of the notable features of the Southwest along the way. There were a lot of canyons, mountains, deserts, weird rock formations, and changes in elevation. Unfortunately I came down with a bad cold the day we left Tulsa and didn’t feel better until well after we got back to NYC, but I still had a great time. We went through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Southwestern Colorado, Utah, Arizona again and then into Southern California.
What were some noteworthy stops? Were there any places you always wanted to visit that held any particular importance to you personally/conceptually/artistically?
The trip revisited a lot of places that my family traveled to when I was a child. They really had a major impact on me when I was little and as I’ve lived in more places, especially on the East Coast, I’ve come to realize how lucky and special it was to get to know that part of the US as a kid. I wanted to show these places to my wife and her parents, who are all from Japan, because they are amazing and had a big influence on me. The cliff-dwelling ruins of the pueblo peoples in Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde have had a lasting hold on my imagination my whole life.
When we were at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, I sat and stared at the canyon for 6 hours while my wife and in-laws went hiking (i was too sick to hike). I could have done that for several days, just taking in all of the turns, folds, bumps, drops and curves. That kind of looking is really wonderful nourishment for my creative work. We also visited Arcosanti, Cosanti, and Taliesin West in Arizona which were sort of architectural pilgrimages for my wife and I.
I’ve interviewed you once before, and last time we discussed the importance of nomadic culture in your work, which is in a way ironic because your work has gained so much traction through the internet, a place that only takes up space conceptually and has its own unique cultural language — inevitably there is a strange duality for you and your work between archaic and this contemporaneous culture. Does this show or any of your work speak to that idea at all?
The possibility of a nomadic existence has fascinated me for a long time and has manifested itself in various ways in my creative work. I guess it started with family road trips, then through tours of the bands I played music with, and later conceptually in architecture, deisgn, and art. I gather that most people associate nomadism with scenes of Central Asia or Mongolian yurts and lots of felt and travel on horseback across the plains, but for me its essentially been about a concept of not belonging to a place, or a lack of site-specificity. I never felt like I fit in culturally in Tulsa, but I have yet to find a place where I really feel like i belong. My wife has had very much the same experience, with more dramatic results, which has also lead her to create work very much about contemporary ideas and conditions of nomadic culture. The concept of nomadism lead me into a long-term study of utopian cultures – both proposals and actual experiments because the fundamental idea of a utopia is that it is a non place. There is a great amount of implied freedom in the idea of nomadism that is very romantic and very alluring and I think contemporary nomads and utopians, at least in western culture, are motivated primarily by these ideals. Likewise, many Modern architects and engineers were compelled by these ideals to create designs that could be applied globally or through an abstract notion of universality. The work of Buckminster Fuller might be the most clear illustration of that. Some of my older work, such as the Nests was coming more directly from this approach in that they could be easily constructed anywhere with simple materials, then disassembled and transported and re-constructed fairly easily in a new location.
My wife and I have an ongoing project where she gives me a haircut in a public place and we photograph it so that its not site specific, but more about the feel of a type of place such as a forest of a snowy field. This grew out of another project I did in grad school in which I added a sidecar and haircutting system to a bicycle and rode around offering free haircuts and essentially transforming any place into a space for grooming, which is a very universal human need. The materials, process and forms I use now tend to speak to this non-place/universal interest in that they are very common and can sort of “fit in” in any context.
However, One of the first stitched-rope pieces I made, Rumpleskillskid, I thought of as a kind of wearable hut, somewhere between architecture and clothing, that obscures the wearer completely but doesn’t necessarily try to fit into or hide in a specific context like camouflage would. The piece is heavy but can be rolled up and used wherever someone desires privacy or obscurity. The idea of being able to create that space anywhere is very appealing to me, like a very natural desire.
With the emergence of the Internet coinciding with my own creative career, I’ve come to see the internet as an incredible agent for “placelessness” and contemporary nomadism in many ways. I lived enough of pre-internet life to understand how much it has changed human existence, and along with that how it has affected art and design. The work in my show doesn’t directly deal with these ideas about nomadism, but the ideas definitely influence what I make and how I present what I make. I like my work to be presented online in a very neutral non-place kind of setting, one that could be recreated anywhere so that it has a notion of universality and viewers are free to project their own ideas into the space and onto the work. I also try not to “style” them with props or colors or lighting effects that could potentially tie them to the latest visual trend. I would love if they could also travel through time with the same ambiguous or universal appearance. The gallery space in Tulsa was designed and built along the lines of a somewhat universal “gallery” aesthetic that is perfect for this approach. The images of the exhibition by photographer Michael Popp really convey that the gallery could be anywhere, which is exciting for me.
I like to think that the show could be in Tulsa or Brooklyn and it would look the same and that viewers would have nearly the same experience. Additionally, the physical exhibition lasted for only a month, while it can continue to exist globally for as long as the images are online. I think this approach to the images has contributed to their dispersal online, but part of it is also the rapidly growing and constant need for fresh visual content on blogs. In hindsight, my interest in the analog between nomadism and universality, especially in the language of Modern architecture that I often utilize in my work, came about through an initial distaste and criticism of those architectural aspirations. I eventually embraced them after I gained an understanding of the historical critiques and stylists reactions that arose because of them. Contemporary notions of nomadism lie more in a condition of inescapable globalism and an internet that exists almost literally as a world-wide-web, which both came about as part of the project of Modernism yet after the major reactions against it. Now culture is synthesizing and absorbing these conditions, for better or worse, and it is something I think about frequently. This contemplation doesn’t really manifest itself directly or obviously in my work these days, but when we ship our work to Japan or Australia or Denmark they take on a new life in a new place as they could anywhere, and in a way the images online already acted as homesteaders for the work to travel to those places and start the process – all of these conditions become clear and real to me. Relatively soon humans will be establishing outposts on other planets where we are already driving around remote-controlled laboratories, and we have launched equipment that has recently left our solar system. Our understanding of “home” will be and should be changing and therefore the meaning of nomadism must shift as well.
What inspires you in your everyday life? Would you say big picture ideas inspire you more or elements of daily life?
Its kind of an equal mix I think. I get really really excited about big-picture thinking. I absolutely love concepts like “big history” and how they can change my perception of nearly everything. I listen to a lot of science-based podcasts and audiobooks while I work – stuff that is diluted and worded for mass consumption by non-scientists like myself but still quite mind blowing.
However, a lot of my inspiration does still come from things I encounter in daily life like oddly shaped shrubbery or something I see someone wearing. The neighborhood where we live and work in Brooklyn is a very diverse mix of people from around the world and its fascinating to see how everyone deals with everyday life in different ways.
Who or what are your biggest influences?
Most of my influence comes from architectural history, primarily modernism, especially the period of 1965-1975 but also from places like the cliff dwellings of the southwest or the cave-dwellings of Cappadocia in Turkey. Some of that is aesthetic influence but most of it is in ideology or concept. Its in the way materials and processes are manipulated and the work is expressed, and a balance between old and new technologies. Working at Atelier Van Lieshout was a major influence in terms of how they approach a hybrid of art/design/architecture both in concept and in their studio practice. I played music for a long time, mostly as a drummer, and the experiences playing with other musicians helped me to hone my improvisational abilities. Improvisation has become a big part of how I work and its a skill that I want to develop more with my art and design work.
Does the concept behind your hanging artwork differ at all between your more utility based pieces? What did the making of these pieces allow you to explore (technically, emotionally) that might be different than your usual process?
In some idealistic way the hanging pieces are very much the same as utilitarian pieces – at least in the little world of our studio. Outside the studio, in the market and in the press, there is a need to differentiate and categorize, which isn’t a bad thing. For me they might exist somewhere on a spectrum of art to design but I kind of wish they could all just be objects outside of those contexts. In making the hanging pieces we did find many new things to consider while evaluating what move to make next, or which piece should be used in the exhibition. For instance, most of the utilitarian don’t focus much on visual surface effects or tricks but in making several of the hanging pieces there were visual effects emerging that became the primary concerns of the piece. Likewise, most of the pieces required that we step up our game in terms of technical understanding of the process, whether it was how the machines work, how the material responds to the new process, etc. That kind of learning is exciting a rewarding for me as well.
What’s next for you after this show?
I have some pieces in a few groups shows – one in Tacoma in September at the Seymour Conservatory, and one in October at my undergrad alma mater Drury University in Springfield, Mo. We will be introducing another limited edition of dyed cotton rope baskets and bags very soon, in time for Fall. I have some commissions for custom lighting and furniture pieces and will be working on another exhibition of new lighting pieces at Patrick Parrish Gallery early next year. The holidays are a very busy time for the studio but I hope to fit in some additional artwork here and there, and my wife Tomoe and I are starting to design some sculptural/conceptual furniture pieces together that we are very excited about. The project with Tomoe is a longer term endeavor that we’ve been scheming for several years so we hope to get some things into existence by Spring!
ARTWORK AND TRAVEL PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOUG JOHNSTON
See more of Doug’s work here, and all of the pieces in his “Brooklyn Nets” show at Exhibit by Aberson in Tulsa, Oklahoma here