What's on Los Angeles | Index

by Jody Zellen

June 11, 2020

Heidi Johnson
Animal Kingdoms: The paintings of Heidi Johnson

There is nothing that gives Heidi Johnson more satisfaction than painting. Painting takes precedence over many things in her life. Like a runner whose addiction to exercise mandates the need to clock daily mileage, Johnson has that need to put brush to canvas. Johnson lives with numerous pets-- cats, dogs and even a pigeon-- so it comes as no surprise that animals inhabit her paintings. Before Covid-19, her large-scale, multi-panel oil paintings were fantastical landscapes that included both flora and fauna, as well as random detritus like coffee cups, beer cans and cigarette butts. These works were purposely chaotic, dense and lush, to reflect the bombardment of information in today's society.

During quarantine Johnson went from having a 1000 square foot loft to a 6 by 4 foot space in a spare bedroom in a rental house, which forced her to scale down her works to no larger than 48 inches square. Her new paintings primarily feature birds and touch on the schism between inside and out and the longing and then acceptance that comes from being confined. They reflect the unknown -- as Johnson states, "the unknown future, with unknown dangers and parameters that can enter ones life in unforeseeable ways."

Iced Coffee with Friends, 2020, oil on canvas, 48" x 48"

Gabrielle and Sister, 2020, oil on canvas, 24" x 24"

In Iced Coffee with Friends, Johnson uses Fairfield Porter's 1966 painting Iced Coffee as a point of departure, adding birds that disrupt the peaceful moment Porter depicts in his work. Two colorful cockatoos (one mostly red, the other yellow and blue), rest on a yellow dowel in an interior space, occupying the lower half of the square composition. Above them, two Northern Flickers wrestle with green bird-food baskets suspended by and swinging from chains that connect them to the ceiling. The setting is a porch or sunroom in a suburban or country home that is surrounded by inviting nature that can be seen beyond the blue window frames. Partially obscured by the birds and their food, sit two figures reading what appear to be mobile devices instead of the books in Porter's painting. A half-full glass of iced coffee sits on a table. In isolation, we are separated from our friends, though for Johnson, these animals have become an apt substitute. She whimsically transforms the moment of calm Porter captures into a moment of chaos that references both quarantine and contemporary life.

Gabrielle and Sister is a small work for Johnson (only 24 x 24 inches). It is a painted montage of seemingly unrelated elements—- a postcard reproduction of "Gabrielle d'Estrées et une de ses soeurs," (c. 1594), the well-known and infamous painting that depicts Gabrielle d'Estrées (the mistress of King Henry IV of France) sitting nude in a bath with her sister who pinches her right nipple. In the foreground of the painting are two pinkish white cockatoos that have an uncanny resemblance to the women. One bird obscures a sign for the "BoomBoom Room" which advertises cocktails but is off-limits during quarantine. At the left edge, a red neon sign vertically displaying the word "EXOTIC" ironically suggests an interpretation of the painting.

Sitting Ducks, ​2020, oil on canvas, 40" x 40"

Sottobosco Livingroom, 2020, oil on canvas, 48" x 48"

In Sitting Ducks, Johnson surrounds two domesticated blue parakeets that stare directly out of the painting at the viewer with a menagerie of other wild birds and animals that frolic through painted branches, flowers and leaves. Behind these birds (that are unaware of the dangers of hunting), is a postcard size reproduction of Winslow Homer's Right and Left although a sign for a bait shop sits outside their window). Johnson presents a painting that explores the relationship between inside and out, confinement and freedom. Sottobosco Livingroom features two black crows and two tiger-striped cockatoos clustered by the window inside a suburban house. Out the window, mostly obscured by the birds is a tree-lined street with two houses behind a white picket fence, set against a purple-hued sky. There is a disconnect between interior and exterior, as the animals appear to be on the inside rather than the outside of the window.

Johnson is a facile painter who represents her subjects with exacting detail. While the animals and settings are realistic, they are also extremely expressive. She delineates interior and exterior spaces, giving dream-like situations an aura of possibility. Her works are always jam-packed. They reflect not only the abundance in our over saturated world, but also the chaos. Johnson extrapolates and personifies-- her animals act out human interactions as well as display our fears. These new works are metaphors for lost freedoms, confinement and the disarray that comes from uncertainty.

For more information on Heidi Johnson's work please visit:


Instagram @heidiheidihoho