Andrew Ellis Johnson was born in Cortland, New York. His father was a jazz guitarist, civil war historian, and former SUNY Cortland history professor, and his mother was a science major. Johnson’s solo exhibition pays tribute to his local roots with an installation that showcases paintings and objects from several series. The work re-examines ideals and aspirations that our country claims—and that have been so selectively enacted or attained. Johnson considers the exhibition's title, Founder, to be about both an agent and an action, the establishment and the breakdown—of a vessel, society, or state in the context of historical, cultural, and political conditions.
Johnson's artistic practice includes imagery and forms across a variety of media, tactics, and disciplines. Through his work, he explores pressing social and political issues and injustices, wrestling with boundaries between aesthetic, political, and moral orders. He treats representation — not as rigid pictorial tradition —but as an agency to awaken and combat inertia. In his work, he often examines complex social topics such as the Haitian grassroots movement, homelessness, predatory economics, unabated sowing of land mines, crises in the Middle East, consequences of war and violence, meditations on labor, and myth, and other pressing issues.
One of the series included in the display, Tall Tales, interprets events after the 2017 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville. The work responds to the economic deprivation, structural violence, and endemic racism that has persisted for centuries. Images like Thomas Jefferson's wig ignited with a Tiki Torch explore the myths, distortions, and unmet promises of American hegemony and history. Drawings of the felled horses of Confederate Generals speak to the ongoing controversies regarding who and what we choose to memorialize and the malignant consequences of a Civil War that remain unresolved. Johnson employs realism as a tool to interject narrative, folding together fragments of both history and contemporary references. The black and white ink paintings create solemn tableaus filled with symbolism through the viscera of greed, organs of oppression, cavities of omission, tumors of hubris, and sinews of hatred. Johnson's artistic lens distorts the past to meet the needs of the present to emphasize new contexts. He explains. "As a youth, I asked my father (a Civil War historian who taught at SUNY Cortland for 40 years) why he named me after the only president to be impeached. He said that Lyndon Johnson wasn't president at the time I was born. My childhood hero was the muckraking cartoonist Thomas Nast who created devastating critiques of the reconstruction policies of my namesake. The more I tried to reconcile these allegiances, the more I dug, and the more I favored the power of imagery that can combat injustice with irony and allegory, and advocate for equity with opprobrium."
A supporting virtual program accessible to the public accompanies the exhibition with a diverse list of guest speakers providing a broad view of subjects such as poetry, history, social commentary, and American politics. Among programs such as Artist's Talk with the featured artist, the gallery offers in-person and remote documentary screenings, virtual tours, and in-person visits. Andrew Ellis Johnson, Associate Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon, School of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, will present a lecture entitled Flaying Foundering Fathers: Antidotal Portrayals for Historical Abuse. Johnson will focus on various generative subjects informing his work and will re-examine the representation and repercussions of our slave-owning founding fathers, and the unmet ideals of liberty and equality that they espoused.
Dr. Vernellia Randall, a founder and editor, professor emerita of Law at The University of Dayton School of Law, Ohio, will contribute to the program with a virtual talk, From Washington to Biden: How Presidents Use the Law to Impede Racial Justice. Professor Randall's lecture will build on a theoretical scaffolding using similar factual and historical references as those visible in Johnson's work. Her extensive scholarship considers race, racism, and racial distinctions in the law. It examines the role of domestic and international law in promoting and/or alleviating racism. She will deliver a talk on the manipulation of history and the law in the context of the collective perception of prominent historical figures, making a direct connection with concepts and commentary present in Johnson's paintings.
SUNY Cortland alumna Claire Leggett '18 will lead a panel discussion with two current undergraduate students, Daniel Larkin and Francesca Strojan. Their talk titled The Resistance of Memory: Portraiture and Foundational Myths will address portraits as a vehicle of conversation, providing viewers with new knowledge and provoking interesting questions about who these people were and the worlds they lived in. Panelists will also explore the questions raised by Andrew Ellis Johnson's works and wrestle with ideas of myth, memory, and dominant narratives.
The supporting program for the Founder exhibition will conclude with a presentation featuring Dr. Clint Smith, an internationally acclaimed staff writer at The Atlantic, celebrated African-American poet, and recipient of many awards and recognitions. Clint Smith will give a brief talk on How the Word is Passed. His talk will focus on his anticipated book scheduled for release in June of 2021. Across the country are innumerable places that have direct ties to slavery—our schools, our streets, our prisons, our cemeteries, our cities—places that illustrate how some of this country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view. In this talk, Clint will discuss how the history of slavery has shaped the contemporary landscape of inequality and shares what he learned from trips to different historical sites throughout the country that are tied to slavery's legacy. Informed by scholarship and brought alive by the stories of people living today, Smith outlines how these places reckon with—or fail to reckon with their relationship to slavery, and how it is our responsibility to collectively document, learn from, and account for this history.
All lectures are held virtually via WebEx video-communication software. Detailed information and link invitations will be posted on the Dowd Gallery website and social media.
Andrew Ellis Johnson’s work has appeared in galleries, festivals, public collaborations, conferences, and publications in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. He has performed as co-founder of the collective PED in Buffalo, Belfast, Chongqing, Rio de Janeiro, St. John’s, and Toronto. He received his BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and MFA at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he is an Associate Professor of Art. Residencies and exchanges over the last decade include those at Korean National University of the Arts, Seoul; Blue Mountain Center, New York; University of the Arts London, Camberwell; Fayoum International Art Center, Egypt; Sites of Passage in Jerusalem/Ramallah/ Pittsburgh; and Tsinghua University’s Academy of Arts & Design in Beijing.
Recent solo/two-person exhibits in the USA include Getting There at Gettysburg College and Resort at Kendall College of Art & Design and McDonough Museum of Art and Somewhere Over the Border at the Allcott Gallery at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.