Ghosts and memories in Susan Johnson’s latest exhibit


Susan Johnson’s lush acrylic paintings may appear deceptively straightforward, until you learn about their inspiration. Johnson talked about her newest show, “Ghosts,” at the Feldman Family Art Space in the M.V. Film Center lobby, which runs through Dec. 13.

“I am sharing works from three new series with slightly different styles as I play with ideas of space and time as spirit, haunting, memory in landscape and objects such as shells intermixed with things like plastic,” Johnson said. “Essentially, they are about ghosts that can be a metaphor. And the idea of haunting, to me, connects to the idea of buried trauma, social events that are related to our current environment, where we are uncovering all these buried traumas that were invisible that are becoming visible. I am not painting something specific, but about that idea and playing with it.”

Johnson, as you can see in her still lives with discarded clam, conch, and lobster shells, is attracted to the idea of remains. “Shells are a motif I have done from the very beginning,” she explains. “They are a ruin, in a way. Connected to this is that my ancestors are European settlers of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.” Johnson’s research into genealogy opens up the past to her, she says, and to ideas about migration, and how and why people move. “The idea of buried trauma is connected to people moving from one place to another, but always carrying that landscape within — like memory. I start with these ideas, but when I’m actually painting, I go into the zone. It has to have that sense of freedom and play in it, and come organically.”

Johnson believes her profound feeling for and connection to the Vineyard’s landscape is evident in these new works, including her abstract series titled “Landscape Spirit Fields.” She did a lot of painting outdoors on Island farms for about a year in various locations. “In this case, I was thinking about a lot of different things. About the history of the place and the families. I decided to let go of the representational aspect of it and just go into painting the spirit of the landscape,” she says.

Interestingly, Johnson says that implicit in her organizational logic with color and form is the feeling of music. This summer she returned to playing string instruments, particularly her cello. And there is music in Johnson’s paint-laden brushwork, which sweeps and swoops across her canvases.

The still life with limes and lemons has an ethereal feel, and has a tie to Tuscany, where Johnson had a direct ghost experience when staying on an old farm. She points out that the tile floors of the place peek through on the bottom. “I like the idea of the space of reality swirling and dissolving into something else,” Johnson says.

Another piece that she feels is pure play is “Ghost Series: Salt/Pepper Bunnies, Shells.” Johnson explains, “I painted a lot of rabbits on the farm, and I like them. Also, my older brother married a Japanese woman, and there is a whole thing with bunnies in Japan, so I sort of had that in my mind. And my younger brother gave me these bunny salt and pepper shakers a couple of years back, which I used for this still life. They are bunnies, but they also serve as objects.”

Johnson says, “I guess you could say at heart I’m an abstract expressionist surrealist with a social conscience. I know they are really different,” she says. But for Johnson in terms of painting, “ultimately, I just have to do it.”

While her works stem from fascinating ideas, ultimately you experience each on a visceral level, getting gloriously lost in the canvases.

Susan Johnson’s exhibit at the Feldman Family Art Space in the M.V. Film Center lobby runs through Dec. 13.