Whitehot Magazine

September 2009, Interview with Zach Johnsen

Red No.3, Zach Johnsen

Heavy Mental

Mid-stride, a sudden burst of force causes the body to reel as a geyser of pure, primitive color-expression engulfs the head. Not only does this describe Zach Johnsen's "Acid In The Ice Cream" drawing series, but it's also a pat embodiment of what he strives to do with his work. Like a shot through the mind's eye, his images preempt reality, superimposing an alternate take that ripples with chaotic energy. He's successfully translated his vision into commercial work for clients as diverse as Ecko, Guinness and MTV, but it's his personal output that remains the truest form of this expression. With a mix of watercolours, pen and ink and whatever else he can lay hands on, Johnsen's approach to art is syncretic, blending mysticism, animism, graffiti and fine art.  

Kevin Nelson: What's your background, artistically?

Zach Johnsen: Like probably any kid growing up, I started drawing and doodling at an early age, using whatever materials I could find lying around. My mom is an artist and designer herself, and she has been doing artwork for as long as I can remember. She gave me support right from the beginning, mostly in the way of giving me supplies to work with. I spent a lot of time when I was growing up drawing armies of characters with my brother. Each would have his/her own animal strengths, statistics, weapons and notes. Eventually, these characters would all end up fighting one another on paper.  
I think a lot of kids have that sort of experience when they're testing out their creative faculties: seeing these fleshed out worlds in popular culture and trying to recreate that, down to detailed notes. It seems from a younger age you were wanting to interact with your work (the battles on paper), and were striving for a lot of detail. Any other parallels from that time and your current output?

Up until a year ago, there was almost a direct link from the character-based pen work of my childhood to my current character based work that was almost exclusively created in black pen and ink. It's funny that 20+ years went by and not much had changed. With my "Acid in the Ice Cream" series, up until the new work I'm doing now, I took a definite turn in how I work. I started to tire of my formula and wanted to explore much more. So, I'm in uncharted territory now; I'm experimenting with different uses of media and surface. I'm a bit all over the place, but I'm having fun!
KN: There seems to be a bit of a comic element to your work. Did you read a lot of comics growing up?  

ZJ: Well, I did read comic books, although I wasn't a diehard comic nerd or anything. My father used to have a friend, Tom DeFalco, who was a writer for Marvel Comics in New York back in the day. He used to send signed comics to my father for us kids and on a couple occasions, we actually visited the Marvel offices in New York. So yeah, I suppose Spider Man, the Fantastic Four and Ghostrider all infiltrated my later work in some way.  

KN: There are a lot of ideas in any given piece; I was wondering where you draw inspiration from.

ZJ: I love reading about the spiritual world, transcendentalism, nature, survival manuals, Native American folklore and the like. That, combined with the drawings of David Hockney, the paintings of Phil Hale, and the illustrations of Ralph Steadman, and I have a wealth of inspiration to work with.

KN: There does seem to be a strong undercurrent of spiritualism in your art. Any books in particular that have been big influences?

ZJ: It might sound corny to some, though not to me, but the work of Carlos Castenada is a huge influence on me. Plus the books on tracking and survival by Tom Brown, Jr. are also amazing.
KN: Your commercial work with Homeschool Snowboarding pays homage to venerated fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. I remember looking at his painted covers for fantasy books as a kid and having these fantastic ideas of what the stories inside would contain. What was your first brush with the less mainstream side of things, things that as kid spoke to you of these more fantastic worlds that you're trying to explore in your own work?

ZJ: Well, the work I've been doing for the past eight years or so was dead to me as a kid. I was more interested in war and the army for some reason. Now that I'm a bit older and my ideas more developed, I've realized that this life of routine we live in isn't all there is to be seen. And, certainly, war and fighting has since lost its glamour for me. That aspect still appears in my work, but now as something of ignorance and self-defeat than glory and action. That change happened gradually, and most noticeably in my college years when I was experimenting with styles and themes more than any time previously. During that time some of the more fantastic elements and ideas starting showing up in my work.
KN: What can you tell me about your Graffiti days? Have elements have bled into your pen and ink/watercolour/oil work?

ZJ: Hmmm...interesting question. How did you know I used to be into graffiti? Is it apparent in my work? People often say so, although I personally don't see it.

KN: I can't remember where I read that, but I would say there are some elements. I could easily imagine some of your paintings thrown up on a wall somewhere. There's a vibe of sorts to the images you choose that suggests street art to me.  

ZJ: Well, I grew up in northern New Hampshire where graf was not well known, but I have family in New York and used to visit frequently. Obviously, especially when I was younger, New York was covered -- absolutely mangled -- with bombs, tags, pieces. It seemed like everything was covered. And, although I didn't really understand it, I loved the idea of having your own name and writing it on everything you encountered. I had a tag, which sucked, then later on I ended up running with a crew and I started developing a style and getting up and all that. It was a really fun time in my life, but it got me into trouble and I started to realize that, in the end, it was just another scene and I kind of faded out of it and more into fine art. To me, none of that has really filtered into my illustration and fine art work, except for one thing -- the constant overlap of paint on walls. I love that more than anything else about graffiti: the history in the paint. A scribble, then a couple tags, a bomb, a piece, someone buffing the piece, then more bombs, tags, etc. until there is time and energy trapped in the paint. Sometimes I just want to strip that thick layer of paint off the wall, bring it back to my studio and dissect it. Probably, after we're long dead and gone some civilization will do that.  

Life Under the Power Lines, Zach Johnsen

KN: Your work does have a very painterly aspect to it. Looking at something like "Life Under The Powerlines," you can see the tracks of the artist: paint streaks, the process used for each part, etc. Which artists do you appreciate that similarly lay their process bare? You've already mentioned Steadman...

ZJ: Definitely. Also, Egon Schiele, with his line line work and loose use of color in his drawings. You can see his process and the simplicity of his marks in everything he does, almost even more so than in his actualized paintings. I love the transparency and texture of his fields of color and brush stroke.

KN: I know you use oils and pen and ink frequently, but it seems like watercolors are your medium of choice. In another interview you mentioned the layering of colors. What about this appeals to you?

ZJ: Watercolors are amazing for their transparency. I love to overlap them and still see the work you've done underneath. Plus, they have an uncontrollable quality -- like you can't quite get exactly what you want, because the medium has a mind of its own when it interacts with paper. The same is true to some extent with other media too: oils are much more rich, but you can also achieve that transparent quality by adding enough medium, or thinning them. Oils are just a bit more involved and take a lot longer to dry. That's why I have shied away from them more. I get impatient waiting to make a next move, so, inevitably, I end up going back to watercolor. But I'm planning on painting some huge panels on wood soon, and I'm sure oils will come into play.

KN: There are exceptions, of course, but a lot of the colors you use seem quite subdued. Have you always been attracted to the more muted colors? Have you ever been tempted by the more day-go, candy-colored side of the spectrum?

ZJ: I have always kept my colors muted, like dirt tones. I don't exactly know why, but it always felt right to me. But, I'm breaking out of that. Now, I like to mix those earth tones with a hyper orange or neon yellow -- just push certain elements out in front of others by sheer voluminosity. But, fear not: I can still make a perfect color match for blood on paper.
KN: Chaos seems to be a tool in your work, as much as pen or brush. I'm fascinated by artists who create works which are obviously labour and time intensive, and how they try to sustain that energy and feel over the course of the process. Do you need something to aid you in sustaining moods in order to work?  

ZJ: Well, for me, it's more about getting the shell of the work down before you lose what you set out to do. I get sidetracked easily and always have multiple drawings going on at once, in case I get tired of the one I'm working on. My situation might be a bit more unique, as I don't do as much painting -- pushing and pulling and adding and taking away -- as drawings with watercolor. So, providing I can get the basis for the drawing down, the rest is easy: a spliff and some good tunes and I'm in the zone!
KN: I'm curious about the name of your website, "Zenvironments." Have you always been interested in exploring mental environments?

ZJ: Ever since I started experimenting with drugs when I was a young'un -- mescalin, acid, mushrooms, weed. All this opened me up in ways I never thought possible. From that very first time experimenting with some of this stuff, I didn't just feel, but knew that there are other levels of energy and environments to be explored. So yeah, long before I coined the name "Zenvironments," I was very interested in alternate universes and studying flows of the mind and body.  
KN: Your art seems to operate on a more instinctual level, what with the anthropomorphic animals and animal-human hybrids you portray. Are these figures more interpretory symbols or are they meant to be taken literally?  

ZJ: They're more symbolic than anything else. Basically, people and animals share common characteristics and traits. We are so closely connected to animals and to the natural world, although sometimes it seems like we are at odds with it. But, as soon as the natural world dies off or we successfully kill it altogether, then we too will die off. We are children of the earth, made up of the same stuff that makes up a possum and a stream. It's all the same thing, and the same thing that runs through it runs through us. So, these hybrids are just natural creations that not only identify a particular character, but also help propel the story of a drawing or a painting.

KN: What can you tell us about your installation work?

ZJ: It's still in its infancy. My first foray into installation came with my "Welcome to the Neighborhood" exhibit at Foundation One in Atlanta in 2007. I took a number of my characters on paper and made them life-size, painting them on plywood, cutting them out, and composing them in real space as I would in one of my drawings. It was a very fun way of working, and I still do installation work in the same vein to this day. Now, I have a desire to bring many of these characters and manifestations into even fuller space, making them fully three dimensional.

KN: Any new projects coming up that we should be aware of ?

ZJ: At the moment, I am working on redesigning the site, which should be re-launched mid-July. At the same time, I am creating a place online to showcase my more fine art and installation works, www.zachjohnsen.com. That should also be up mid-July. Aside from web work, I am working on a new body of work -- new drawings, new paintings and new installations that should be ready to show by fall. It's going to be different than anything I've done in the past, so check back soon!

Kevin Nelson

Kevin Nelson is a writer in Vancouver BC.

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