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.

“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,

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,

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,

Mary McDonnell
September 25–November 7

There’s so much half-assed abstract painting these days that thoughtful efforts, like those by Mary McDonnell, give fresh pleasure. McDonnell delicately layers swaths of paint on grainy wooden planks with a minimal, moody use of color, creating introspective works of veiled emotion. Equally demure are her careful lines and shapes on paper (also here), suggesting jumbled Japanese calligraphy or fractured Chinese landscapes. McDonnell, like Helen Frankenthaler, makes abstraction gorgeous. James Graham & Sons, 32 East 67th Street,

‘Approaching Abstraction’
October 6–September 6, 2010

Among 40 Art Brut works of minimal representation, you’ll find the marvelous objects of wrapped yarn from Judith Scott, a woman with Down syndrome whose discovery of art was remarkable; Leroy Person’s carved wooded figures, mysterious with their colorful primitivism; and the extraordinary visions of cosmic chaos from Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, a recluse who often painted with his fingers. American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street,

Hugo CrosthwaiteOctober 16–November 15

Drawn with Caravaggio-like drama and edging toward surrealism, the wondrous graphite-and-charcoal scenes of urban existence by the Mexican native Hugo Crosthwaite—a superb draftsman—are like illustrations for a latter-day Dante. Lumpy figures, surrounded by noirish glimpses of Tijuana and Atlanta, writhe inside cramped, shadowy spaces or float in blankness like souls damned to desperate corners of Hell. Pierogi, 177 North 9th Street, Brooklyn,

October 22–November 24

Like a bemused radiologist, Susanne Ramsenthaler has used imaging technology to study and expose the inner beauty of objects. Isolated on white backgrounds, her photogrammed jellyfish or photographed bars of used soap become, simply, vivid expressions of color and texture. Now she’s experimenting with the disruption of visual patterns by poking or prodding them with virtual tools. It’s like a vivisection of Op Art. 511 Gallery, 252 Seventh Avenue,

Urs Fischer
October 28–January 24, 2010

If the impulsive, unpredictable artist of wild ideas, impossible demands, and European origins is a Hollywood cliché, then Zurich-born Urs Fischer comes from central casting. He has excavated a gallery floor, built a Swiss chalet with sourdough bread, and for this exhibit—the first time the museum has devoted its entire space to one artist—he’ll include a labyrinth of mirrored cubes, a wall-probing tongue, and, no doubt, a few last-minute head-turners. New Museum of Contemporary Art, 235 Bowery,

‘Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History
October 30–January 31, 2010

The enduring myth of the rock musician as bohemian iconoclast probably owes as much to the camera as it does to the guitar. Though the exhibit includes ordinary moments (like James Brown getting his hair curled), the pervasive visions are those of evangelic fever, brooding saints, and the carefree life. David Bowie reaches toward Tokyo fans as if to heal them; Patti Smith in the Bowery resembles one of Munch’s soulful waifs; the Sex Pistols mug it up in London. Brooklyn Museum of Art, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn,

Wallace Berman
November 6–January 9, 2010

Father in the 1950s and ’60s of low-budget assemblage, beatnik Wallace Berman was a beguiling visual essayist. In his Verifax collages, paintings, hand-printed publication Semina, and his film Aleph, he both lampooned and glorified the daily information overload, mixing images of religion, pornography, nature, and rock ‘n’ roll, often presented inside the frame of a transistor radio—which, for the ascetic Berman, was a kind of godhead. Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, 526 West 26th Street,

‘Alias Man Ray: The Art of Reinvention’
November 15–March 14, 2010

It was a great disappointment to the Brooklyn-raised Man Ray that, despite a varied oeuvre, his fame rested primarily on his photographs. They are, of course, iconic: the portraits of glitterati, the exquisite nudes, and his pioneering experiments in solarization and photograms. But the exhibit demonstrates that Man Ray, a Parisian by 1921, was a dedicated gadabout, who also produced paintings, prints, sculptures, and delightful Dada-esque films. Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue,

Anthony McCall
December 12–January 30, 2010

The dust-filled space between the projector and the screen never gets mentioned in film criticism, but for Anthony McCall, it’s essential. In the 1970s, McCall’s mystical sculptures of light—like Line Describing a Cone, in which a slowly drawn circle creates a near-holographic volume—became legendary, but the artist abandoned such work for more than 30 years. Now he has returned, with more complex geometry and haze machines. In Leaving . . . , one of several projections here, mist eerily swirls on elegant contours of white light. Walking through it, you can’t help but imagine that you’re meeting with God. Sean Kelly Gallery, 528 West 29th Street,

Gabriel Orozco
December 13–March 1, 2010

No one epitomizes the whimsical intellectual more than Gabriel Orozco, whose interests in joyfully upsetting established order or following his curiosity produce everything from large sculptures to photographed spontaneity. It’s all here: the Citroen sedan he compressed; the plasticine ball he rolled through city streets; the game of billiards he modified by a pendulum; his wordplay with obituaries; and his disobedient rearrangements of supermarket fare. Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street,