Looking Through the Skull: Decay and the “Mysterious” Jaime Johnson

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We are pleased to release July's print, Spine from Jaime Johnson. Read more about Johnson's work below.

Purchase this print and from our print sale page.

Spine 7 x 9", Edition of 5, signed and numbered Tea-toned cyanotype on Japanese rice paper $125

Spine
7 x 9", Edition of 5, signed and numbered
Tea-toned cyanotype on Japanese rice paper
$125

It was little surprise to her friends and family that Jaime Johnson’s series Untamed explores death, wilderness, and decay. Years ago, one of her sisters opened a jewelry box and discovered that Jaime had stored two dead grasshoppers in it, and in recent years, more than one friend remarked upon a pile of bones that she kept in her car trunk. Her sisters have more than once quipped, “That’s Jaime with a dead thing.” Not long ago, a friend called Johnson to give her a dead bird. Apparently, her fascination with death is no secret.

Speaking with a soft, lilting Southern drawl, Johnson might seem to be a stereotypical “Southern gal” were it not for her morbid predilection. Johnson’s work, while aligning with a certain vein of Southern gothic, ascribes a delicacy to death that invites more than frightens. She readily embraces the notion of herself as a “Southern” artist, but her work both indulges and undermines that label.

Rest

Untamed centers on the swamps and woods of Mississippi, a place where the decay of the natural world—perhaps as clearly as anywhere—illustrates the relationship between life and death, growth and decay. For example, “Animal Tracking” captures the shifting waters and soils that spread out through the damp Southern forest. Johnson grew up in this world. When she was young, her family moved from New Orleans to rural Mississippi, allowing her to venture into the outdoors with her sisters and twin brother, poking around ditches and turning over tree stumps. Even today she spends at least an hour each day wandering the outdoors.

Johnson and her brother left home at 16 to become boarding students at the Mississippi School of Math and Science in the north of the state. It was there that she discovered photography. She soon found herself making photos of anything she could find, one summer focusing exclusively on the lizards that scurried around her parents’ Poplarville home. While at boarding school she learned that her father had been a photographer years earlier. He had pursued his own artwork, but left the hobby behind when the family moved out of Louisiana.

Untamed is presented as a series of tea-toned cyanotypes. Johnson drifted into cyanotype printing while working on her MFA, but was dissatisfied with its traditional blue tints. Washing her prints in tea, a process that begins to break down the paper, she found a testament to the natural processes that she was trying to understand and describe. The exquisite Japanese rice paper she uses makes printing each one a challenge. For every print that survives the delicate process, ten are lost.

The close, almost studious, attention to detail in Johnson’s work likely owes something to her years in the science curriculum, but her turn to art suggests the limitations of science to explain the entirety of the natural world. Despite her images’ clear grounding in the place of her youth, they rise at times toward archetype, suggesting some cycle or unseen story behind the facts in front of us. For example, in “Rest,” the image of a dead brown thrush contrasts with our traditional idea of rest only if one takes death to be final. The bird may be forever stilled, but its body and its energy will be broken apart and consumed by nature, permitting new life to rise up. The thrush in “Rest” looks as peaceful as a bird nestled down to sleep, and the image’s power is in the realization that this peace can only be harbored by such a dark certainty.

Mask

Johnson’s use of bones in many of her images speak to this continuity between life and death, peace and darkness. In “Mask,” a figure peers out over the waters of a swamp. Holding the skull of an alligator like a mask over her face, she looks out between the teeth in the skull. Despite this, the image remains oddly relaxed and contemplative. The woman crouches as though taking a moment to reflect on the scene, and she looks through the skull as though they were a pair of binoculars. Similarly, in “Bone Dress,” the stereotypical southern belle dress is transformed into a pile of bones, a startling (if also darkly humorous) reimagining of the Southern woman. In this image, just as in “Mask,” the signs of death become the very objects that animate the scene. The woman in each—either holding or wearing the signs of decay—takes possession of the very thing that might undo her. Repurposing the deaths of other creatures so that she might live, this woman simultaneously recognizes in death, she too will be repurposed and consumed by the earth.

Untamed was partly influenced by the story of a feral woman in the book Women Who Run with the Wolves. These images illustrate a power that derives from a loss of self to a natural cycle. The feral woman here is one who embraces the impermanence of the world, not in order to acknowledge the looming end of our lives, but to suggest that by looking through the skull, we can see the landscape around us with unexpected clarity.

Bone Dress

Johnson says that she has been “accused of being mysterious.” While the comment may have been made because of her self-proclaimed intense need for solitude, the same accusation might be leveled at Untamed. To do so, though, would miss her thoughtful engagement with both medium and subject. Johnson’s images are not “mysterious” in that they resist discovery; nor are they simply overwrought ruminations on the worn-out trope that “life comes from death;” instead, they articulate our capacity to decay as a marker of our identity. When we do, we gain clearer vision and more sure footing, even if some of our own edges tear away in the waters.

This article first appeared in print in Issue 4.

Roger Thompson is the Senior Editor for Don’t Take Pictures. His critical writings have appeared in exhibition catalogues and he has written extensively on self-taught artists with features in Raw Vision and The Outsider. He currently resides in Long Island, New York and is a Professor at Stony Brook University.