Jess Johnson in collaboration with Cynthia Johnson

Flesh Totem Double Arches
1950 x 890 mm
digital print on cotton with pieced fabric border, painted cast resin, wooden dowel
Courtesy of the artist and Ivan Anthony Gallery,
Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland

Estimate: NZD 13,000 — 17,000

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Flesh Totem Double Arches is a collaboration between Jess Johnson and quiltmaker Cynthia Johnson, her mother, consisting of handmade pieced quilts featuring digital prints of Johnson’s drawings. The quilt collides graphic art technologies with traditional quiltmaking craft, weaving the repetitive geometries and elaborate borders of Johnson’s drawings into an unsettling portal to a world full of humanoid drones, messianic figures and alien runes.

Flesh Totem Double Arches was previously exhibited as part of TERMINUS, a virtual reality experience in five parts brought to life by Jess Johnson, Simon Ward, Kenny Smith and Andrew Clarke. TERMINUS was originally commissioned by the National Gallery of Australia and The Balnaves Foundation in 2018. After its inaugural presentation at the National Gallery of Australia, TERMINUS travelled to Tauranga Art Gallery in 2019, followed by presentations in New York, Melbourne, and Tokyo. TERMINUS recently returned to Aotearoa New Zealand to exhibit at The Dowse Art Museum, Te Awakairangi Lower Hutt, from the 14th November 2020 until the 21st March 2021.

Artist Biography & History
with Artspace Aotearoa:


Knowing You, Knowing Me: New Artists Show (group), 10 July — 21 August 2010, curated by Emma Bugden

Jess Johnson


Jess Johnson was born in Tauranga, Aotearoa New Zealand in 1979. She lives and works in New York and Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland.

The concept of world-building lies at the center of Jess Johnson’s work, which reflects her interests in science fiction, language, technology, and concepts of consciousness. Over several years, her drawings have documented an increasingly complex fictional world; they are meshworks of symbology, humanoid clones, messianic figures, and alien runes placed in architectural settings. Her drawing practice feeds into installations and collaborations in animation, music, fashion, Virtual Reality, and textile art. These additional mediums bring the world of her drawings into physical and virtual spaces, providing an immersive experience for audiences.

In May of 2018, Johnson and collaborator Simon Ward premiered TERMINUS, a major five-part virtual reality commission and solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. Johnson and Ward’s installation and video work, Whol Why Wurld, was a finalist for Aotearoa New Zealand’s Walter’s Prize 2018. Johnson’s second solo exhibition in the US, Panspermia, Sing Omega, opened at Jack Hanley Gallery in September 2019, and another solo show, Neon Meat Dream, her first in Japan, opened at Nanzuka Gallery in Tokyo in November 2019.

An excerpt from The quilts of Jess and Cynthia Johnson: A mother-daughter partnership: An interview with Jess Johnson and Cynthia Johnson by Sophia Cai. Originally published by Garland Magazine, 2018.

Sophia Cai: This is the first time that you have collaborated [with your mother]. Can you talk about how this came to be? Was it something you had planned to do for a long time?

Jess Johnson: It came about through a shift that occurred both physically and mentally. After I moved to New York in early 2016 I was getting asked to be in exhibitions back in Australia and New Zealand but wasn’t able to travel to every invitation. My previous installations involved a high degree of manual labour that I would do myself. But being based in New York meant I had to develop ways to participate remotely. I got asked to be in MONA FOMA in Tasmania and was given this loose brief to do a project in a Masonic Hall. I’ve always been fascinated by the Freemasons and couldn’t turn it down. But the challenge was how to scale up my artwork to suit the huge dimensions of this hall and also get the work made in a way that didn’t require my labour. I ended up collaborating with sound composer Andrew Clarke, who created this dark atmospheric soundpiece (called Chondrule Terminus). My contribution was designing these giant theatrical banners that hung from the ceiling. It was the first time I’d ventured into getting my artwork digitally printed and it opened up all these new possibilities of printing onto fabrics and working with textiles. And I already had a quilt maker in my family so naturally, I started considering quilts.

My Mum is an accomplished quilt-maker. Every household in our family has a pile of quilts she has made for us (each quilt takes several months to complete). She always had a work area in the home while I was growing up where she would be hand dying, cutting, arranging and piecing material. I think this patterning and process really sunk into my own art-making, which you can see in the repetitive geometries, elaborate borders and use of templates in my drawings. Embarrassingly, I had never really acknowledged the influence of her quilt making before. I hadn’t exactly been dismissive of Mum’s quilt-making, but I had been guilty of relegating it to somewhere in the background. When I actually started looking with freshly opened eyes the parallels were really obvious.

The actual collaborative process with Mum involved me creating new compositions by cannibalising and rearranging elements from past drawings in Photoshop. I then printed these compositions onto quilter’s cotton and sent the bolts of cloth from New York to New Zealand. Mum then started turning these into quilts and creating the borders for each one.

Sophia Cai: Cynthia, I am interested to hear about your process of making and fabrication. How were the designs selected for the quilts? Did you have a template you were working from?

Cynthia Johnson: The experience of collaborating with my daughter, Jessica, was at first an intriguing concept but eventually became one of the most enjoyable experiences in my life as a quiltmaker. In her work, Jessica uses many of the geometric shapes that are found within both worlds of graphic art and quiltmaking. I was able to use these basic shapes of triangles, rectangles and squares to frame her artworks. I am rather “old school” in my work process so used graph paper and pencil to hash out various designs until I was happy.

Then came the hard part. I have never designed my quilts with a specific positioning of colour. Jessica’s centre design is placed up on my felt design wall (which fabric easily adheres to) and I would throw up pieces of fabric next to it until I saw the colours that worked together. I think that has been the tradition of quiltmaking since the nineteenth century where women would create six-foot large pieces of abstract compositions out of bits of fabric using their sense of design. Many of these quilts can be seen as forerunners to much of what is seen as abstract art of the twentieth century. Those who are interested just need to look up Gee Bend Quilts and the marvellous Amish quilts to see what I am talking about. Very little was seen by the general public because quilts were deemed as domestic work by uneducated women!

Sophia Cai: The resulting quilts were displayed at the Auckland Art Fair in a similar fashion to wall hangings, with custom-created wall hooks fashioned like (talons?). Was it a conscious decision to display them in a similar way to paintings or drawings in a gallery? How did audience members react to the work?

Jess Johnson: The hanging system for the quilts was really important to me. I knew I could push it in some way to make the presentation more sculptural. I wanted there to be some “oomph” behind the quilts–something in-your-face–definitely nothing meek or discrete. I mulled on it for a long while until I came across this small family business in Illinois that produced these custom hanging systems for sword collectors. One of their products were these intricately sculpted Gothic-style dragon talons cast in resin. I instantly knew I’d found what I’d been looking for. I ordered a bunch, bought them to New Zealand in a suitcase. Then hand painted them a flesh colour in my Dad’s shed in Whangarei. I felt a definite nervousness around using them although that isn’t uncommon in everything I do. I like pushing really close to the edge of ridiculousness and using dragon talons to hang quilts in the land of Lord of the Rings was getting pretty close to parody. But as soon as I’d installed the first one I felt a huge relief. They still made me laugh but achieved everything I had wanted them to.