TAMARA JOHNSON No Your Boundaries
CUE ART FOUNDATION | FEBRUARY 13 – MARCH 23, 2016
Yea, my bucket’s got a hole in it!
Yea, my bucket’s got a hole in it!
Yea, my bucket’s got a hole in it,
I can’t buy no beer.
—Lee Blevins and Victor Sells,
“My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”
The landscape created in Tamara Johnson’s exhibition No Your Boundaries, at the CUE Art Foundation, has a relatable undertone not unlike Hank Williams Sr.’s 1949 version of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.” His particular brand of country blues swing possessed a bouncing admission of futility while maintaining the dream of, at the very least, having the ability to keep going. Rhythmically gliding through the telling of a story that could or could not be our own and searching for answers, by the end of two and half minutes, Williams was driving a Ford with his sweetheart close at hand. The B-side of that single was, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Entering Johnson’s exhibition, a persistent lurching sound is heard—a small struggling motor and repetitive thud. The nuanced sound emanates from a site yet unseen. Its subtle variations become background and soundtrack. Having been initially greeted by a circular paper plate drawing, mounted to the wall directly inside the glass doors of CUE, this sound guides you from the project space toward the larger gallery down the hall.
The space opens up to Fence with Grass (2016), a set of intersecting fence structures that divide the gallery into quadrants, while acting as an anchoring chorus.It’s clear that the two fences are from different worlds—one made of tall wooden plank, the other a waist-high, rigid iron structure similar to those commonly seen throughout the boroughs of New York City. The latter marks property lines, but does not prevent a visual trespass. The taller fence blocks the view entirely, hiding the source of the machinating bumps as it curves gently towards the back corner of the gallery. Johnson brought this particular segment of fence from the street of her childhood home in Waco, Texas. As such, it speaks to a different locale entirely. Johnson has skillfully crafted their point of convergence, the wooden fence appearing to have “grown” around and given way to the shorter metal fence as would a tree after years of having been planted too close to an unmoving impediment. Another paper plate, drawn in the same fashion as that in the hall, lies on the floor that now reads as ground, and draws us closer to the source of the sounds overlaying the exhibition’s visual experience. Continuing past it, the fences create a previously hidden enclosure in which a small, motorized patch of grassy sod on wheels seems to repeatedly “bang its head against the wall.” Back and forth, sometimes with a little shimmy, but consistent in trajectory, it creates its own mark on the wall of the gallery in what could be seen as an effort to free itself, a meditation on futility.
On the gallery’s left, four of Johnson’s colorful “Water hoses” (2015) hang on the wall, each allowing for individual distinction, but close enough in their grouping to form a family portrait of sorts. Sculpted from aluminum, rope, rubber, thickly applied pigmented silicon, and oil-based paint, these “hoses” are descendants within the lineage of western landscape painting as much as they are sculpture; they speak to a very particular geography, control and cultivation, and humanity’s relationship with its surrounding environment. Rendering the frustration and thwarting mastery within and of that environment is what gives these pieces their voice. The hoses attach to themselves, melting into their own bodies, further driving home the point that these cannot/will not carry water. No grass will be made greener here, that admission is carried in painterly surfaces of light green, bright yellow, black, and flaming orange. Like the smile and wink inference of asking when you already know the answer, Reba McEntire’s tongue-in-cheek classic, “Why Haven’t I Heard From You?” (1994) comes to mind. It holds the same mature retrospect of knowing the complications of asking a question to make a point, and the deeper more complex uncertainty simmering just below the ability to pull off that kind of delivery—a practiced negation of slippery double, often contradictory meanings.
Positioned to the right side of the gallery, in an architectural corner detail of the floor, sits Armadillo (2015).This life-sized sculpture is represented as if alive and hiding in defensive mode, the armored top of its head and end of its tail visible at the small opening. Armadillos are pervasive in Johnson’s home state of Texas, and thwart many a manicured lawn. Unlike the Water hoses,this little creature is rendered active, if momentarily closed off by use of it’s armored shell. The armadillo as symbol could represent a life in and of itself, mysterious, hidden and full of rambunctious potential—an armored alien built for survival. As such, it serves as an irritant, giving context to its surroundings, localizing them, while simultaneously speaking to larger implications than the specificity of itself. Just beyond this floor bound sculpture, the off-white Water hose, Knot (2015) is mounted to the wall at eye level, conspicuously separate from its cousins on the other side of the fence. This time there is no hanging hook; instead it umbilically emerges directly from the gallery wall at a metal joining piece. The hose has three ends/inputs and in this respect, is the most imaginary of all. Its bodily reference and proximity to Armadillo render the gallery space as two sides of the same coin—an exterior and interior.
In No Your Boundaries, Johnson creates an installation of works that function as a ballad of sorts. A rhythmic and thoughtful mining of landscape that, despite having incubated in discrete experience, deftly maneuvers into the realm of a shared humanity. Each potential soloist steps forward at just the right moment. Like filling up a bucket one knows there is a hole in (and singing about it), Johnson, for her part, makes work that resists oversimplification, and celebrates the complex optimism of futile attempts and the layered nature of loaded questions.
Kate Harding is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail