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New art exhibit by Jeremiah Johnson at Grey Art Gallery

‘Between Life and Death’

May 13, 2012
By MATTHEW PARRISH ( , Williamsport Sun-Gazette

Like most people, city artist Jeremiah Johnson is flooded by credit card applications. But unlike most people, instead of throwing them out, he uses them for creative purposes.

"For a long time, I was saving credit card applications," he said. "I was getting like 25 a month and I didn't want to waste all that paper ... it's good paper."

Thankfully, he never tried his initial idea: "I first thought, 'What if I really got all of them and maxed 'em out quickly and ran off a millionaire to some island somewhere where they wouldn't find me?' "

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But his second idea was a winner.

"Later on, with the housing market - everyone was buying houses on credit, so I thought I'd used the credit card applications to build a house."

Johnson constructed small model houses with the junk mail based on local properties that intrigued him.

"All these houses are representational of houses in Williamsport," he said. "I went down to [a spot] where they were putting up new houses. A lot are from Habitat for Humanity. They're a combination of those houses and houses with windows coming out of the attics and porches that wrap around."

The artist also was resourceful when it came to fashioning the pedestals the artworks would be placed on.

"They're sitting on pedestals made out of foam core scraps," he said. "There's no sense in throwing this stuff away - that's something important to my work. I use a lot of found materials. I don't like to waste too much."

For several of his larger works that will be on display for his new exhibit, "Between Life and Death," which will open with a reception at 6 p.m. Friday at the Grey Art Gallery, 140 W. Fourth St., Johnson mined old Interview magazines for images.

"Interview Magazine was popular in the '80s," Johnson said. "It was Andy Warhol's magazine and it was all about pop culture. It still exists but it's a lot smaller and it has different colors. In the '80s, it was about neon colors - a lot of white and pink, 'Miami Vice' colors."

Johnson said that his artwork evolved from '80s pop culture and art.

"My work came out of that," he said. "After undergrad, when the movie 'Basquiat' came out in 1994, his [Jean-Michel Basquiat's] artwork became popular. I looked at it and dismissed it. I thought it was awful crayon children's drawings."

At the time, Johnson was fascinated by Northern Renaissance and German Expressionist art, which taut more refined aesthetics.

"From seeing the movie, I realized [Basquiat] was referencing German Expressionism and abstract expressionism and I began to appreciate his work."

Johnson also read about artists in Rolling Stone Magazine.

"The first images I remember were Keith Haring guys doing dance moves," he said. "That was the same time Andy Warhol died and I didn't know anything about him. He was on the cover of Rolling Stone with his dog. At the time, all I knew was the Coco-Cola bottles and Campbell Soup cans."

Johnson connected the dots and figured out how the artists "related to each other."

"I started to appreciate all that stuff and realized what a nice dream life it was to live in New York City in the early '80s. My work extended from the neo-expressionism from that era."

Johnson would call his own work "post neo-expressionist."

"It's a combination of that," he said. "The thing about expressionists is that they were true to themselves. Their work had a lot of emotion in it. It all had to do with breakups with girlfriends and personal problems and emotional issues - like Van Gogh."

Johnson explored that aspect of his artwork until he didn't feel it anymore.

"I was riding off that for a while until it became a cartoon of itself," he said. "Everyone was like, 'It's all about Jeremiah's breakups' and it wasn't about the misery. I didn't feel the misery anymore when I looked at them."

These days, the artist, who is originally from Nippenose Valley, sometimes begins an artwork with an idea and sometimes just starts by filling space.

"I think about it in an abstract expressionist sort of way," he said. "They're difficult to work on. They're a mess when I'm working on them. I have to find a way to work out of the mess."

The biggest artwork for the "Between Life and Death" show is "Tree of Life."

"The only thing holding [that work] together is having the tree in it," he said. "Trees are important. Like [poet Joyce Kilmer] said, 'I think that I shall never see a poet lovely as a tree.' Trees are gorgeous. Uninhibited, they can grow perfectly round in the space. It's the most important thing in the space."

Johnson teaches printmaking at Lycoming College and Pennsylvania College of Technology.

He also will teach an art history class at the Grey Art Gallery in the summer and has been working with students on a mural at Williamsport Area High School (which was featured in the Sun-Gazette's Education section last Monday).

About the art history course, Johnson said, "People can come in as they please. It's not a class that you'll get graded on. I'd rather that people appreciate and listen to what they're being told. If you like to look at art and are willing to look at everything - even stuff you may not like. People may hate Jeff Koons because he's too artificial but they may appreciate it after they're done with the class."

The class will be held each Tuesday for six weeks from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

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