Tanya Pixie Johnson: Edge of Light

Tanya Pixie Johnson is an artist defined by her obsessive sorting and gathering; of found materials, ideas and human experiences. With roots in rural British Columbia Tanya P’s practice has an astounding reach due to her penchant for residencies in far-flung places and an unrelenting engagement with land, people and place; both ephemeral and essential.…

2017 Feb 25 – 2017 May 28

Curated by Arin Fay

Tanya P Johnson’s Edge of the light is a study in exploring liminal space, challenging binaries and reveling in the chaotic cohesion of disparate things made whole.  Her use of contrast, as a basic means of delineation (texture, material, colour, symbol, meaning and method), creates the capacity to highlight difference and challenge empirical definitions. There are no easy answers in this series of explorations, but a sense of cultivated dissonance, which calls for further focus.  The results of these ‘mashups’ are both strangely satisfying and wholly disturbing in that they challenge our tendency for classification; the rote learning we are taught as children, that teach us that square pegs do not belong in round holes and that a dog is a dog, even if it quacks like a duck.  Artists are very often the purveyors of such enlightening inquiry because their modus operandi involves the asking of difficult questions and the telling of many truths. The Dadaists, such as Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Hoch and Méret Oppenheim, famously undertook such artistic analysis in their respective “readymades”, collage, and assemblage works, which re/decontextualized the commonplace. Like the ideologies brought forth by the Dada artists, this work employs a lexicon that speaks to the idea of the creative potential in destruction. Or to take it a step further, to see the work through the lens of Newton’s Law of Energy where “nothing can be created or destroyed, but merely transformed from one thing to another”  (Maury, Jean-Pierre Newton: Understanding the Cosmos,1992). Antithetical to the scientific approach, yet often employing many of the same methodologies, artists such as Tanya P. Johnson contemplate concepts both real and imagined, large and small, and present things in ways that allow them to be seen anew.

As a whole, the exhibition examines a spectrum of meaning and method contained in the work of several disparate but inter-related series: Upside Down Mind, Anthropomorphs , Interventions and Transforms & Anatomical Thought Maps.  Tanya P. Johnson’s approach exemplifies that of an accomplished and persistent practice, seen in the sculptural complexity of paper, both two and three dimensional, and the magical realism of found and figurative subject matter. There is a great ‘unpacking’ of ideas in these works and the viewer is left to ruminate upon what they see, and what they feel. One gets the sense of the layering of story, as held within the found objects and their re-contextualization, as well as in the multiple narratives that compose the subject matter. A book denuded of its’ Canon and the history re-written in a new language, or an entity created from parts which are so far removed from their cultural connotations, that the associations become obscured and/or grotesque. What is a book? What is a doll? Invisible and unrelenting currents such as colonialism and patriarchy are simultaneously rejected and called out when ships become vacuums, vacuums become heads, and heads become buttons. It is both irreverent and deeply significant, the media-mining and melding that create these works and is reminiscent of Tim Whiten and “…his alive objects … energies that he confidently protects, channels, and combines. Within this type of artistic alchemy, the subject matter and the materials are deeply intertwined, and it is the overall mediation of the ideas contained, that emerge in the Edge of the Light.  

The mixed media and collage series Upside-Down Mind represents the initial study of both the subject matter and many of the symbols and symbioses that work to inform all that is contained within Edge of the Light. It is here that the pervasive “colonial mind” contained within western construct(s), is confronted. It is here that the acts of transformation and transmutation first find form. The Transforms series explores the complex dualities and allegorical minimalism that is further explored in the three dimensional works of the Anthropomorphs and Interventions, but shares the same process-oriented approach as that of the Anatomical Thought Maps series. These works bring to Edge of the Light a sense of a conversation taken to its conclusion and back again. The series, which emerged in residency in Europe, follows intensive research of the artist’s own ancestry and the Dutch-South African history. There is a post-colonial journey in these works from single cell to complex construction. 

The Anthropomorphs embody most dramatically all the existential struggle and symbolism found between the vast binaries of light and dark, and there is a distinct air of voodoo in the found-object amalgamations on display. Johnson’s life experience in Africa, her proclivity to search out the underbelly of society, her exposure to Sangoma “( South African traditional healer) muti” (medicine) markets and ceremonies provides a back story to the Anthropomorphs. This, and the inspiration drawn from magic practices of the medieval dyn hysbys (Medieval practioners of magic) of Wales and cunning folk of Britain and the alchemical European belief in the homunculus (Alchemical representation of a miniature human) , has been metabolized through artistic practice into this series of effigies and fetishes. These unnerving creations in every way interrupt our expectations and experience and cause a revaluation of what is recognizable and knowable. We read in the Anthropomorphs an exploration of ideas of piercing, binding, bundles and intersections. There is a surprisingly emotional response which takes place when one sees the legs of a doll emerging from bones, or nails driven into a wooden head. These artistic decisions carry the same interventionist and transformative current as all the work in Edge of the Light; they conspire to stop and make us see what it is we are seeing. 

Throughout the four bodies of work within Edge of the Light there is a visceral sense of connection and purpose, as if all are a part of an otherworldly apothecary of intention. What is the cause and what is the cure? There is a mad artist/scientist/shaman lurking in the shadows, intent on settling these deeply entrenched Frankenstein-esque questions. This laboratory aesthetic is reminiscent of the approach of artists like Mark Dion and Fiona Hall and their respective and remarkable ‘cabinet of curiosities’ installations. These artists engage the gallery space as part of larger dialogue. Edge of the Light employs this same type of experiential interaction and asks the viewer to examine not only what is on display but their own reactions to it.  

The experience of walking into a gallery space which is dedicated, in myriad ways, to challenge our perceptions, is akin to the childlike wonder and fear of the house of mirrors and freak-show combined. It is the artists that can break the burden of knowledge that we adults haul around so heavily and give us back that evocative haunted-house shiver of wonder and fear that is sorely lacking in the ‘real’ world. Tanya P Johnson’s Edge of the Light exhibition interrupts the bright, sensical/sensible and sanitized world with a dark and disturbing, but beautifully rendered view of an alternative and evocative way of seeing.   

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