Naarm (Melbourne)-based artist Helen Johnson is celebrated for her large-scale, semi-narrative paintings that explore a range of political and cultural histories and issues. At the heart of her practice lies a continual questioning of the perceived limitations of painting and a desire to expand its potential, both conceptually and technically.
Follower, Leader brings together a group of new paintings and prints created by Johnson while training as an art therapist. Signalling a move away from the archive and research-based approach for which she is known, these figurative paintings integrate dreams and intuitively generated drawings, as well as psychotherapeutic imagery. As the artist states, her embodied approach to painting contends with ‘how the intensities of being in the world are held within each of us.’
Shaped by Johnson’s experiences of motherhood alongside therapeutic conceptions of care and connection, Follower, Leader resonates with the maternal principles of Ngaangk – the overarching theme of the Perth Festival 2024. Referring to sun and mother in the language of the Noongar people, the traditional custodians of the land on which the city of Perth now stands, these principles of creation, beginnings and re-beginnings link to the social, political and environmental concerns in Johnson’s work.
Follower, Leader points towards Johnson’s painting as a vital communication tool that offers both a reflective aesthetic experience and a space for critical engagement. ‘I make decisions about a painting and, at some point, the painting begins to make decisions about itself, and about me,’ Johnson writes. ‘Follower, leader is not a hierarchy, but a circular dynamic.’ Often free-hanging and double-sided, her unstretched canvases invite viewers to move between the paintings, to linger and dwell on shifting impressions as they emerge from the surfaces. Follower, Leader is Helen Johnson’s first exhibition in Western Australia.