“Ann Johnson: Converse: Real Talk” at Women & Their Work

The artist has created a valuable space in which gallery-goers can sit and discuss racism in America

HC Arnold

Austin Chronicle

June 3, 2016

Ann Johnson wants you to talk. She wants you to put your phone away, sit across from a friend or stranger, and have a conversation. In our increasingly digital age of together-but-aloneness, her show is a timely challenge to the norm of social networking. She also wants us to talk about the post-racial lie we tell ourselves, as we wave ambivalence in the face of the obvious racism our country is still in the grips of. Also, in the context of Austin, this exhibition is a sobering reminder of the current and rapid decline in the population of its black community.

Combining branches, furniture, and a variety of found objects, Johnson has constructed a series of talking stations in Women & Their Work’s gallery. Nestled beneath the installed foliage, chairs and benches face each other, inviting you to rest your feet and talk with fellow gallery-goers. Perched in the overhead branches are mirrors, birdhouses, and leaves – many of which have images of African-Americans on them.

This type of imagery should be neutral in 21st century America. But sadly, it’s not. Given those closet racists who snipe anonymous comments across social media and those less anonymous belligerent figures who seized on this for their own loftier goals – one’s name starts with “T” – the imagery of “Converse: Real Talk” squarely responds to our current moment. Loaded terms such as “gentrification,” “Trumped,” and “#sayhername” sit in one set of branches, clearly reminding us of the vocabulary used to address these issues.

This particular talking station is under surveillance, on view in a little screen on the opposite side of the gallery. Yes, Big Brother is always watching. But we are Big Brother. We are obsessively watching one another and ourselves, and we are reminded of this by the nearby large projection of digital news. For this, Johnson selected a group of news feeds centered on racially charged events such as George Zimmerman’s gun auctioning fiasco. Johnson included viewers’ comments, and scattered among them are plenty of racist jabs. One even targets Malia Obama’s acceptance into Harvard, claiming that she’s “riding the Affirmative Action train just like her old man.”

Overall, “Converse: Real Talk” is subtly nuanced and committed to a conceptual unity over just an aesthetic one. Included in the exhibition is a series of sunglasses with images of African-Americans on their lenses. Although they are not part of the talking stations and may feel slightly disjointed from the rest of the show, it is in their function as sunglasses that they continue the dialogue of racism awareness. Sunglasses are used to dim a blinding light and stave off a potential headache. If that blinding light is the metaphorical equivalent of the racial-slurring trolls that hunt on the Internet, and the sunglasses are the quick swipe of the thumb to move on to another webpage and ignore the reality of the situation, then the images of the African-Americans are assertive reminders. With these works as well as the others in the show, Johnson makes it impossible to hide behind the dark frames of complacency any longer.