Schedule About Exhibitions Press Submission Links Contact Semai Gallery

Uptown Magazine, December 25, 2008

Finding art in architecture

Environmental designer/visual artist Galen Johnson explores his obsession with urban landscapes in Aerograd

By Whitney Light

As a student of environmental design, Galen Johnson excelled at paper architecture. Alas, it turned out that most of it was stuff you couldn't actually build. It "might be okay as art," the local artist recalls thinking. Then, "I'm not going to be a good designer if I keep thinking like this."

But he is. At Semai Gallery, a show of Johnson's drawings from 2006 to 2008 features exquisitely detailed urban landscapes in conglomerations and splinters that float on expanses of blank paper. Walls, dams, bridges, power lines, stairwells and more fill the sci-fi compositions. The show's called Aerograd, inspired by a 1935 propaganda film by Aleksandr Dovzhenko about a utopian city of paratroopers in the former Soviet Union. The film's content is extraneous to the work, says Johnson, but the feel of it is right. You might recognize Winnipeg in some of these places.

Johnson finished his studies in environmental design and switched to graphics (he's the art director at Canadian Dimension). But he knew he wanted to apply his four years of architectural training to his artwork. Discipline is probably the first remarkable element for viewers. Johnson estimates he spent about 40 hours on some of the large drawings, planning the composition, drawing lines, colouring it in.

At the level of inspiration, it's the visionary moments in architectural history that interest Johnson. As an example, he mentions Hans Poelzig, a German Expressionist architect whose designs didn't get off the ground very often.

"German Expressionism never really found its voice in architecture," he says. "It tends to be really dark. (Poelzig's work) is so much stranger than anything I'd ever seen. Formally, it doesn't resemble what I'm doing, but I like the idea of these eccentric failures of architecture."

Using the muted colour palette of our city, many of Johnson's landscapes also have something failed about them.

Some are solely about circulation -"nowhere to get to but lots of ways to get there" - and some are about Winnipeg.

"I've started to think more about what I can say about cities and the way they form and the way they succeed and the way they fail," Johnson says. "I live in Osborne and work on Waverley, so it's a city planning disaster, and getting worse, and that's only going to come into my work more, that feeling of disillusionment with the place."

Winnipeg has been at the forefront of Johnson's consciousness since he was a kid. Then, though, it seemed like Utopia. He grew up in Pinawa, which he calls "probably the most architecturally sterile place in the world.

"Every time I came to Winnipeg it was like coming out of a sensory-deprivation chamber," Johnson says only half-jokingly. It was a chamber in which he drew nothing but floor plans for a couple years, inspired by his mother's domestic-design magazines. Looking back on it, "I liked looking at these magazines because it's like lifestyle porn," he says. "Strangely enough, when I do drawings, I'm drawing Pinawa's sterile '60s modernism."

Why? Johnson reflects. "Things make the deepest impression when you're young. When I draw a dam, it doesn't feel like I just had the idea yesterday. It doesn't feel like an affectation. It feels like this is part of me."

The Original Article in Uptown Magazine