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Photographer Simen Johan Explores Uneasy Connections Between Humans and Animals
Often showing wild animals in natural settings, Johan’s photographs may seem like National Geographic idylls writ gloriously large.
NASHVILLE, TENN.- The Frist Center’s Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery will feature Simen Johan: Until the Kingdom Comes, comprising nine large-scale digital photographs and three sculptures. The exhibition opens Feb. 20, 2011, and will remain on view through May 29, 2011.

Often showing wild animals in natural settings, Johan’s photographs may seem like National Geographic idylls writ gloriously large. Yet while appearing to be straightforward documents of nature, the works have an underlying allegorical content. The majestic creatures seem to occupy the titular “kingdom,” an ideal place where desires will be fulfilled and life’s dilemmas resolved. But contained within each image are imperfections that bring this utopic implication back to reality. For every photograph of graceful creatures and pristine landscapes, there are portrayals of animals showing pain, fear or exhaustion in landscapes that are more desolate than beautiful. Johan explains that the title of the exhibition refers “less to the kingdoms of the bible and natural world, and more to the human fantasy that one day, in some way, life will come to a blissful resolution. The answers to who we are and what we’re doing in this world will come to light and validate our existence.” He acknowledges the paradox that while the belief in this more perfect place may be an illusion, it is still an indispensable aspect of human nature.

Johan uses digital technology to blur the boundaries between the real and the imagined. He photographs animals that live in zoos, farms, or nature preserves, or that have been taxidermied or found as road kill. These are situated in settings that seem variously primal in their beauty or post-apocalyptic in their evocation of a ruined land. None of the works depict people, but they contain parallels with human behavior or hints of human influence. We may think of a pair of foxes as husband and wife. Three large bears rooting through a garbage pile remind us of human wastefulness. A clash between enormous male moose could be reenacted on any Saturday night as two men fighting over a spilled beer or a desirable woman.

Similar echoes of human interaction are contained in Johan’s sculptures. These are made from taxidermied animals that have been altered into playful and disturbing constructions, which often feature small birds, foliage and insects living in the fur or feathers of the host animal. These mini-ecosystems reflect his observation that “in nature, there’s a lot of deception and wanting to be fabulous going on, belonging or not belonging, world making, nest making, parasitical situations, etc.” Although both his photographs and sculptures may seem to promise the final tranquility of Eden, Johan is ultimately concerned with capturing the paradoxical nature of life, which, in his words, offers “an emotion-driven experience, engulfed in uncertainty, desire and illusion.”

The artist will be on hand for an Artist’s Perspective at 6:30 p.m., Friday, March 4, 2011, in the Frist Center Auditorium. His lecture is free, and seating is offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

Simen Johan was born in Norway and raised in Sweden and earned his B.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His works have been exhibited internationally and are held in the permanent collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Johan currently lives in New York and is represented by the Yossi Milo Gallery.

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