Anyone who has spent time doing college-level studio visits over the past few years has a list of undergrad and MFA students whose work is so polished—or so funky—that it would not look at all out of place in a Chelsea white cube. More and more—and much sooner than later these days—that’s exactly where it ends up. Tanyth Berkeley was fresh out of Columbia when she debuted so confidently at Bellwether last month. Jodie Vicenta Jacobson, who graduated from Hunter in 2004, makes a strong first impression in Yancey Richardson’s Project space right now. And Sarah Anne Johnson, whose irresistible show just opened at Julie Saul, is the latest of a long list of young women to go straight from Yale’s famous MFA photo program to a New York gallery. (Among her predecessors: Justine Kurland, Malerie Marder, Katy Grannan, Jenny Gage, Dana Hoey, and Deborah Mesa-Pelly.)
Johnson, 28, lives in Winnipeg and didn’t stray too far from home to gather material for “Tree Planting,” the three-year project she shows at Saul. Even before she started photographing the activity in earnest, Johnson had taken part in what she calls “a rite of passage for Canadian kids”: up to 60 days of backbreaking work replanting cleared forestland, one tiny sapling at a time. At 10 cents a tree, it takes a lot of practice to make the $250 to $300 a day Johnson claims she typically pulled down, but the hardships—the heat, the bugs, the rain, the mud—make for one unforgettable summer job. And once the workday is over, the sense of community is heady enough to draw middle-class twentysomethings back year after year. “It’s the closest thing I’ve found to utopia,” Johnson says.
Arranged eccentrically and without frames across a long, curving wall at Saul, the photographs Johnson brought back from these stints in the wilderness form a kaleidoscope of moments, events, places, and impressions: the aerial view of a paved road curving through the countryside, a girl kneeling in a field of flowers with a butterfly on her fingertip, a couple on a raft in a muddy pond, a shirtless man laughing under a cloud-filled sky, a baby deer, a tent in the woods, a splash in a creek. But look closer, and you’ll see that half of these images have been fabricated in Johnson’s studio, where she crafts Sculpey figures to populate modeling-clay landscapes. Scattered among the actual photos, these constructed pictures are sometimes blatantly fake, sometimes utterly convincing, throwing viewers into a lovely, trippy confusion, which is just where Johnson wants us.
“I’m one of those artists who just feel their way through things,” Johnson says, explaining that her project was developing along parallel paths before she realized how naturally the real and constructed images worked together. She began making what she calls “dolls” so that she could fill in the gaps between what she was able to record with the camera and what she remembered from her tree planting experiences. Some of the doll pictures improve on existing photos; others are memories or metaphors—a way of capturing moments that Johnson missed or flubbed with her camera, and conveying not just the specificity of her experience but its flashes of sublimity.
Although her scale-model sets vary in size from a small tabletop to something as big as a double bed, each of them demands a witty, ad hoc inventiveness all the more challenging on a student budget. “I think being broke forces you to be more creative,” Johnson says, pointing to the picture of a craggy mountaintop wreathed in clouds. The mountain is painted packing foam and the clouds cotton puffs that she blew on during the image’s extended exposure to create the right gauzy effect. The wooden slats of a board-walk through the woods are stained popsicle sticks. “I like the tricks,” says Johnson, who picked up pointers working on set construction for theater and film productions, as well as assisting on one of Gregory Crewdson’s cinematic setups. “I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none.” But Johnson’s inspired mix of artifice and reality, naïveté and sophistication, makes mere mastery beside the point. In the season’s most engaging and appealing photographic debut, she’s both documented and created a back-to-the-garden utopia you won’t want to leave.