The Enola Gay Caught in the Sails of the Mayflower, 2007
plastic models and card table
Approx. 22"h x 25"w x 16"d
by Deborah Spivak
Peter Johansen does not want to tell you what to think. But, he does want to tell you to think. His conceptual sculptures strictly avoid a lesson in order to ask the viewer to reconsider his or her own body of knowledge. By reframing standard symbols of American culture, the viewer contemplates the importance of these new symbols rather than associating standard meaning. In works such as The Oregon Trail vs. The Great Wall of China and Sputnik vs. the Death Star, Johansen combines points of "common knowledge," moments in the collective history of the United States. These combinations, amusing at first, have deeper implications; they establish a dialog between disparate symbols. By doing this, he unravels expected narratives and blows up the canon of history.
It is not Johansen's style to trick you. He deliberately avoids the traditional understanding of quality in the construction of his work. Precision is not a factor because he does not want the viewer to read or understand the technique. Johansen uses pre-fabricated items when possible; he lets pieces of tape indicate the artist's hand; and, he uses cheap card tables to present his work. By taking away the element of craftsmanship, Johansen highlights the symbolic system of our learned culture, conferring meaning through representation rather than accuracy. The aesthetic of these works is not what draws the viewer's attention. Instead, he takes concepts out of their packages and presents them in a new light.
"What do you want to know?" Johansen asks. With an interest in fun facts and trivia, he mulls over the idea that all knowledge can be seen as trivial. As Johansen says, his works offer up "spills of meaning," an unraveling of meaning that continues to operate as long as the viewer considers his works. In works such as The Titanic vs. Alcatraz, Johansen reframes the one-sentence definitions of these symbols. He asks his viewers, what might happen if the Titanic, known for its tragic demise, crashed into Alcatraz, a natural island that is known for its imprisonment of particularly dangerous people? The specificity of these symbolic items changes their meaning into something precarious and mutable, like history itself.
Johansen does not want you to ask him why he makes his art. Rather, he asks "why not?" After the initial reaction of recognition and amusement, the viewer begins to question the subject matter at hand. Why these? What is the point? What would happen? How does he come up with it? Johansen deliberately avoids answering these questions, leaving the viewer to walk away with an experience. Although these works can be described in one sentence, they are not one-liners. Instead, they act as opening statements, both capturing attention and leading the viewer into his or her own personal investigation.