Artist Spotlight: David Johnson at The Luminary Arts

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

It’s hard to imagine The Luminary Center for the Arts pairing with a more appropriate artist to kick off their series of seven pop-up exhibitions that will preview their “in progress” new building than David Johnson. Unfinished spaces are Johnson’s playground—and his current inspiration. “Your Walls Aren’t That White, Part 3,” is a new body of Johnson’s photographs that focus on the concept of transitional architecture, and how space is transformed between past commercial venues to a new exhibition space. The week-long exhibit opens Friday, Oct. 25 at the Luminary’s new gallery space on Cherokee.

From "Your Walls Aren't That White" Artist David Johnson

From “Your Walls Aren’t That White”
Artist David Johnson


The upcoming exhibit is the third in a series. “Your Walls Aren’t That White” parts 1 and 2 consisted of photographs of the interiors of Boots Contemporary Art Space and the apartment gallery Los Caminos respectively. Johnson begins with an initial walking tour of the space, where he doesn’t take photos. Later he’ll return several times to take pictures with each subsequent visit building on images and relationships he’s discovered on previous visits and studies. “The environment always dictates the way I make the image,” Johnson says. “I want it to be progressive, rather than static, for the viewer: a narrative of interrogating realization.“

From "Your Walls Aren't That White" Artist David Johnson

From “Your Walls Aren’t That White”
Artist David Johnson


Johnson’s current focus is the relationship between the built environment and its inhabitants. By focusing on small mundane objects and the quality of lighting, his abstracted photographs of office spaces and domestic environments highlight the strained relationship between self and place. Johnson is an Adjunct Lecturer at Saint Louis University and founding member of the RAD LAB studio space Downtown. He’s been exhibited nationally, including the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum, Los Caminos, Boots Contemporary Arts Space, both in St. Louis, La Esquina in Kansas City, Missouri, Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Ore., and Maps Contemporary Art Space in Belleville, Ill. He also was a winner of the Great Rivers Biennial in 2012.

From "Your Walls Aren't That White" Artist David Johnson

From “Your Walls Aren’t That White”
Artist David Johnson

ALIVE caught up with Johnson to ask about what inspires him and how he explores building through photography.

ALIVE: Has there been a defining moment in your life or career?

Johnson: When I was eight, my parents gave me a Polaroid camera and I shot two packets of film in a matter of minutes. I lived in Florence for six months when I was 21. Those were defining times in my art-life, but winning the Great Rivers Biennial in 2012 was a game-changer. Just this last summer, some of the work I made for that show was accepted into the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. That’s incredibly validating too.

ALIVE: What can people expect to see in your upcoming show?

Johnson: All of the images were made in The Luminary’s new space on Cherokee during their remodel earlier this year. The images show the residue or leftover objects from the building’s past lives: a head shop, a Walgreens, a beauty supply store, an LED light company, and a theater.

The work for this particular show is very formal: abstracted studies of interior architectural detail—what’s left. These images are a little bit below the threshold of how we would normally see or understand the given space. Some of the images are almost cinematic, like the sound stage after a completed day of shooting.

ALIVE: What do you hope to achieve with your art?

Johnson: I just think it’s really important to slow down and really study the environments and architecture in which we exist. We need to read the space, try and understand the context and design of where we are.

I want my work to guide viewers through that experience: recognizing the disassociation. The image that they’re looking at was made in the building where they’re standing. It’s my hope that this recognition changes their relationship to the image, and to the building, and cues them to slow down, look harder, and think.

ALIVE: Pick one piece in the show and describe it: inspiration/meaning/technique…whatever strikes you.

Johnson: There are two pieces that I’m pretty excited about–well, I’m excited about them all, but two pieces I want to talk about right now: A diptych of two photographs that have a very strong horizontal composition. They both show the part of the building that had refrigeration during the Walgreens era. The top of third of the images is the drop ceiling, missing a few titles; the middle portion is a white, then blue, line. The white drips past the blue over blocks of white vinyl, and it begins to form something like an inverted cityscape. Upon further inspection, a viewer can see that beyond the vinyl are painted-over letters, spelling out “food center” in one image, and “health center” in the other. The bottom third of the images is piles of two-by-fours. I made these photographs with a 4×5 camera, so there’s a very high sharpness and quality to them.

ALIVE: Why did you find that particular view interesting?

Johnson: I was just very interested in the fact that someone had made the choice to white out “food service” and “health care.” Of course it makes sense that you would paint over a sign like that if it didn’t serve that same purpose once the business had changed. But for me it was more of a symbol or a microcosm of what both the building and neighborhood have been through, this whitewashing, in which we lose some things and gain others.

“Your Walls Aren’t That White,” the first week-long exhibit in the Luminary’s “We Are” series of seven pop-up exhibits running through Dec. 13, opens Friday, Oct. 25. For specific days and times, please visit The Luminary Center for the Arts’ website.

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