Reflecting on Windows: What do Terry Johnston and Claude Monet have in Common?
I met Terry Johnston in April of 2010, at Michigan Land of Riches, the first SiTE:LAB event at the old public museum on Jefferson Street. Before I was allowed to start installing, I was informed that I had to have my picture taken in one of the wildlife dioramas. The resulting portraits of every participating artist were projected in a continuous loop during the night of the event.
Johnston’s photographs of SiTE:LAB artist-participants are not conventional portraits, nor are they candid documentation. They are staged, but the subjects are allowed to pose however they wish. The element of contrivance is a very clever means to disarm the sitter, resulting in portraits that offer a glimpse of the individual’s personality. Johnston’s Windows of Light, currently on display at Keeler Gallery, demonstrate a similar balance of artifice and realism. The series features commercial windows that reveal something of what is within the spaces, as well as reflections of the exterior setting.
It is not surprising that Johnston, a commercial photographer should be aware of the aesthetic potential of commercial vitrines. While there is no shortage of commercial photography that utilizes windows, typically they feature a model. Johnston chose not to include the reflection of any figures in the images; what results is a layering that is intriguing when seen first-hand, because the viewer is reflected on the glass. There is a subtle irony in the photographs that leads me to believe Johnston must have been aware of how the subject would respond to these works. Like Edouard Manet’s Olympia, the viewer unwittingly becomes a subject within the composition.
In this respect, Johnston’s series recalls the water lily paintings by Claude Monet (bear with me). The subject matter presented Monet with a visual challenge to depict three planes in one image: the surface of the water (the flowers), the reflection on the surface of the water (the sky), and what was below the surface. Impressionist paintings are seen so often in reproductions, that it’s easy to forget how remarkable they were. Not only did the Impressionists challenge conventions of academic art, they attempted to record how people experienced visual stimuli.
Pre-Industrial rural life followed the pace of nature. Industry followed the clock, an artificial, albeit necessary means to impose consistency and schedules. Increased urbanization was an outcome of industry, that paradoxically resulted in its own kind of disorder—everything seemed in a constant state of flux, and social classes interacted with a frequency hardly imaginable a generation earlier.
Many Modern artists employed windows in their work. Expressionist August Macke, painted urban residents peering in shop windows. Photographer Eugene Atget, documented elements of Parisian urban life that were either disappearing, or otherwise unseen. Joseph Cornell’s box assemblages are faced with glass, protecting his collected ephemera as if they were relics. Contemporary artists Mark Dion, J. Morgan Puett, Fred Wilson, and Andrea Zittel, have also explored the models of commercial display, or museum display.
A shop window is transparent, yet resists transparency when reflections interfere with perception beyond the surface. A commercial vitrine invites the consumer to admire products, while at the same time keeping those items physically inaccessible. There is something theatrical about window displays, yet their original function was to present goods in a manner that was more natural than seeing clothing on a hanger, or a domestic item on a shelf of identical objects. The display window is also like the museum diorama in which so many of us posed that morning of the installation.
Windows of Light is on display in the Keeler Gallery through November 25th.