Art Talk with Merritt Johnson

By Victoria Hutter
a woman with long dark hair eating vanilla icecream in a cone

Still from Exorcising America: Mouth Exercises by Merritt Johnson.

Merritt Johnson is a multidisciplinary artist who incorporates performance into her practice in addition to painting, sculpture, and video. She is of mixed Kanienkehaka (Mohawk), Blackfoot, Irish and Swedish heritage. In a recent interview, Johnson said performance art is more about being than creating. She notes that once a painting is created, it becomes separate from her and takes on its own life, but performance art is about “presence.” And not just being present. “Performing allows us to reflect on the past and the present and be on the edge of the future,” she explained.

Johnson admits that “Live performance can be off-putting for a lot of people in the same way that people don't visit museums and galleries. I like that the format [video-taped performance] is low resistance that people can try on. I love that people watch these videos that they wouldn’t see in a gallery but they can just find them on YouTube and get drawn in and there's all this subtext and layering of things that you wouldn't have expected to find there.”

Subtext and layering evolve into understatement through which Johnson can craft, as she described, “something to be subversive and political and come from a place that hasn't been claimed by an institution. It can be almost subliminal.”

This malleability of performance art expands the ways Johnson can explore and express her ideas and reflect her heritage, such as her dedication to the land. Johnson describes one of her pieces as “holding up a mirror to the need for paying attention to land and water, not as resources but acknowledging them and how broken our interactions with land and water are.”

Exploring language is another of Johnson’s preoccupations with performance art. She reexamines aphorisms that we say and hear all the time, catch phrases like “Seeing eye to eye,” “Know where you stand,” and “Watch your back” and forces us to see them differently. By presenting those phrases in a focused, literal, and instructive format, their common meaning dissolves to reveal something subtle and hidden.

In fact, she explained that some of her work can be, “viewed differently by Indigenous viewers than it is by non-Indigenous viewers or by someone who is not necessarily aware of Indigenous concerns in terms of language and culture and land.”

To sample Johnson’s work, take a look at her ongoing series, Exorcising America. These pieces use the ideas of “exorcising,” as in freeing a person or place from harmful influences, and “exercising,” as in training.

Throughout the series, Johnson employs an instructional model to guide viewers through sequential exercises to practice something both simple and monumental. Johnson says, “The instructions they're providing is a model for ‘do this and something will happen.’ It's a promise, an invitation to this new possible future.”

Read what Merritt Johnson and other Native American artists have to say about the complicated relationship between Native-American art and museums in the latest edition of NEA Arts magazine.

Check out Merritt Johnson's performance work here and here