The Woskob Family Gallery is a space for contemporary arts and culture in downtown State College, PA.

Artist Q & A: Bethany Johnson

September 30, 2017

Bethany Johnson works as an Assistant Professor at the Texas State University.  Her current work explores her passion for natural sciences and displays her specific interest in how information is presented visually with drawings that appear machine generated. She received her BA in Studio Art from the Kalamazoo College and MFA in Painting from the University of Texas at Austin.

You include a quote by Matthew Irwin with Alien Territories on your website. What speaks to you about this commentary on your work?

When Matthew Irwin covered my work in his Hyperallergic piece, he wrote “While a lot of art seems to be making a statement that neither the artist nor critics seem neither qualified nor interested in clarifying, I’m intrigued by Johnson’s work. It confuses me like programming code, but I just know it means something.”

While flattering, I feel that I am indeed in the business of making things that by definition can’t be precisely “clarified,” as it were, as explanation always requires a certain amount of translation, and therefore conceptual distance from the thing itself. The work does mean things—to me and hopefully others—but it’s also the slippery, mutable, experiential kind of meaning that translates poorly to words.

What is so special about the Mars rover in your opinion? How has this topic influenced you?

Gosh, I just love the Mars rover. I think the conceptual interest is rooted in our human search for knowledge, for new territories, as well as the accidental aesthetics of scientific inquiry. The rover takes beautiful images of the Martian landscape. Landscape: a type of image deeply rooted in art historical and aesthetic tradition, but in this case, taken methodically by a robot for scientific study. The images are, then, both factual and poetic, both data and metaphor.

The rover’s first-person Twitter account has also turned it into a throughly personified character for me: at once earnest, hard working, lonely, and with a charming sense of humor.

There have been a lot of questions from visitors to SEEP surrounding how your works are made: are they printed? Hand-made? Can you explain your artistic process?

The works in SEEP and hand-made drawings with technical pen on paper. They are drawn line by line from top to bottom based on selected source images. The drawing method is influenced by diagrammatic, seismic, and otherwise encoded imagery: images that use a system to reveal or visualize information, while also usually obscuring or complicating other kinds of information.

This kind of markmaking system is therefore exacting and precise, while at the same time also serving as an abstracting and complicating force upon the source imagery, which is an interesting dichotomy to me. It also feels important to me that they are generated by hand: that the system of markmaking is ordered, but is also a record of a decision, a moment, which is not reproducible.

How/why is Alien Territories different from your other works in the past? How does it fit in to your body of work?

Alien Territories fits pretty neatly within the continuum of my work: of work that is exploring the diagrammatic, methodical mark, as well as how landscape or other aesthetic traditions interface with scientific data collection. The settings of the imagery change, but even my newest works contain imagery from both terrestrial and extraterrestrial settings. In your mind, are these works about water?

The three images in SEEP are drawn from images the Mars rover took of its own tracks: representing a poetic moment of looking back, at looking where one has come from in the pursuit of knowledge. A large part of that pursuit for the Mars rover is the search for water or evidence of water. Framed this way, the Mars rover resembles the parched traveller, traversing vast expanses of unforgiving desert. Indeed, the Martian desert is the most inhospitable landscape we can reach: so much so that our presence on that planet is (at least for now) only by proxy.

Where do you see your work going next?

I’ve been making collages lately. This year I have mostly removed the mark making from the images in an attempt to rethink my process and the role that my source imagery can play in the final pieces. I think my practice will always be centered around drawing in some way, but it’s been important to rethink some of my habits and explore another way forward.

For more information visit Bethany Johnson’s website at and follow her on Instagram at @bethany._.johnson

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