Fall Guide: Sarah Anne Johnson Conjures a Mind-Control Center

"From the outside, it looks normal and happy," Canadian artist Sarah Anne Johnson says of the large, three-story dollhouse she painstakingly built by hand—normal, that is, until you notice the windows turned sideways, tree branches emerging from a cupola, and bright flames on the roof. Things get weirder inside: The kitchen is melting, one room sits under a pile of snow, a hospital hallway shines under fluorescent lights. "Everything's to scale, and perfect," Johnson says. "Except for the strangeness."

No Alice in Wonderland fantasy, the work is the centerpiece of Johnson's very serious House on Fire project (at the Julie Saul Gallery, running September 17 through November 14): the artist's impressions and memories—in sculpture and altered photographs—of one of the most bizarre, and disturbing, crimes ever committed by the U.S. government.

In 1956, Johnson's maternal grandmother, Velma Orlikow, sought help for her severe postpartum depression at Montreal's Allan Memorial Institute, a hospital housed inside a Gothic mansion formerly called (the name is pure grade-B Hollywood) Ravenscrag. In fact, real horror did await: Orlikow and other patients had no idea that they'd been lured into the world of MK-ULTRA—a secret program, funded by the CIA, to develop brutal methods for mind control. At the hands of a doctor (and brainwashing specialist) named Ewen Cameron, Orlikow endured years of torture, involving, Johnson says, "shock treatment way past the recommended levels" and "crazy cocktails of drugs, including LSD mixed with speed." She didn't escape, Johnson explains, because "back then, you didn't doubt your doctor," then adds, dolefully, "I think she fell in love with him." Another glance into that dollhouse reveals two clay figures inside a snow cave: the stout Orlikow, naked with a bag on her head, dancing with Cameron.

Sensory-deprived: Black Out, 2008
Courtesy the artist and Julie Saul Gallery
Sensory-deprived: Black Out, 2008

"I always knew I was going to make work about this," says Johnson, whose family didn't discover the truth until 1977, a year after Johnson's birth, when Orlikow's husband read an exposé in The New York Times. More facts emerged as Orlikow spearheaded a class-action suit against the CIA (settled out of court, after her death, in 1988), but as a young artist, Johnson initially found the story too complex to take on. "I wasn't mature enough," she says. In the meantime, she completed "joyous, fun, playful" portrayals of environmental journeys (tree-planting, the Galápagos) that captured her traveling companions in photographs and in small, charmingly crafted figures of Sculpy, which appear like freeze-framed claymation.

But when it finally came time, a little over a year ago, to tackle her grandmother's story, Johnson wanted "a definite switch." So for the House on Fire sculptures, she chose bronze, a material "that could hold the weight of the project." Detailed but often surreal, and all representing Velma Orlikow, the doll-size figures are portraits of agony: A face has been sliced off and turned inward; a mushroom cloud rises from another's head (Orlikow experienced unpredictable rages for years after the treatments); a third, all black, wears the hardened sleeves and helmet that Cameron forced on patients for sensory deprivation. Most poignant, perhaps, are the renderings of Orlikow gnawing on branches of the family tree (a recurring symbol here).

The project gets more deeply personal with the painted photographs. In one, Orlikow, seated in an armchair, clutches her grandchildren (Johnson and her brother)—but her fingers have grown into entangling vines, a brick wall surrounds them, and a bubble-like pattern (read: LSD) rises throughout.

"There've been a few breakdowns," Johnson admits of her emotional involvement. "Crises of conscience: What am I doing? Why am I dragging this all up? It has been really difficult." Though her next work will likely focus on a trip she's taking to the Arctic (a shipboard residency), Johnson isn't finished with MK-ULTRA. "I'm going to come back to this work, for sure," she says—a promise made, it seems, as much for the memory of Ewen Cameron's victims as for her singularly provocative art. "House on Fire," September 17–November 14, Julie Saul Gallery, 535 West 22nd Street, saulgallery.com

Fall Art Picks

Paulina Olowska, Stephen G. Rhodes, and Catherine Sullivan
September 17–October 17

In maybe the season's quirkiest show, Polish artist Paulina Olowska tells an "auto"-biographical story, in silk-screen collages, about traveling in a VW convertible beneath a blue umbrella; Stephen G. Rhodes lends his multimedia satire to Disney's Hall of Presidents by thrashing an animatronic Lincoln and Washington with a bullwhip; and Catherine Sullivan mixes footage of Oh! Calcutta! and a silent melodrama to portray the love affair between critic Kenneth Tynan and actress Louise Brooks. Metro Pictures, 519 West 24th Street, metropicturesgallery.com

Ree Morton: 'At the Still Point of the Turning World'
September 18–December 1

"The point in all cases is that the deities must be made to laugh," wrote Ree Morton in the 1970s, pretty much summing up her approach to art. For 10 years, after having three children, Morton sketched, painted, and sculpted like someone delirious with creativity. The museum surveys her brief career—tragically cut short by her death following a car accident in 1977—with an emphasis on what she drew: the early works of tentative, but touching minimalism, the later cartoon-y style, and studies for installations, like the poetic To Each Concrete Man. Smart but playful, Morton made art that aims to please, and it does. Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, drawingcenter.org

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