The best way to describe collage artist Johanna Goodman’s Imaginary Beings is to explain each piece literally. So, here goes. Pop into her collection and you’ll find a woman whose torso is a part of the moon, her shoulder is half of a space station, her legs are made up of segments of a rocket and she has a pair of stylish sandals on her feet, planted next to the American flag. There is a Starbucks coffee cup in her right hand and a mobile phone in her left. Ok. Take a breath.
These creations are weird. Really weird. Most of them have a human face, arms and feet, but it’s the space between these features where things get surreal. Their bodies and their surroundings are a mismatch of different imagery, from historical photos and buildings to animal skins and plants.
Before she started making these images, Johanna had been painting and drawing for years. “It just started getting a little stale after a while,” she says. “I was doing commissions for a long time, and I was always trying to satisfy a client, or satisfy the subject of the piece that I was making.” These collages gave her the freedom she was missing in her painting, while retaining some links to portraiture through the faces and bodies.
She enjoys not having an objective when beginning a piece. “You see where the materials take you, based on what you find and how you respond to it,” she says. “It’s a different part of my brain that I really enjoyed waking up and using. And whether I meant to or not, it was me trusting my gut instinct almost completely.”
This sense of freedom is all the more prominent now that Johanna creates most of her beings digitally. This means she doesn’t have to go through the “incredible undertaking” of sticking each individual piece of material down with glue: it also gives her access to an entire universe of stock imagery.
She sees herself as a cataloger, constantly searching and collecting and looking for excuses to put different things together. She likes to avoid obvious choices, and breathe new life into pictures that might otherwise never see the light of day again.
“I feel like this older imagery is disappearing and it needs attention. It also gives me an opportunity to use imagery that’s different, and not trendy, and not tasteful, and not of our current standards.” She repackages these older images in a modern, unique way, bringing them back up to date stylistically.
Johanna begins each piece based on something that she’s seen and loved, something that she needs an excuse to explore more. She will always find a way to include an image that has affected her in a piece. “It’s just a matter of responding to things I’ve found and trying to be in tune with my response to them as I go,” she says.
She has now created so many of these beings that she sees potential for new ones all the time. “I see them everywhere I go when I walk around,” she says. “I see them in the cracks of the sidewalks.” This isn’t an expression; she literally sees them in the cracks of the sidewalks. “There was one crack near my house. I kept thinking they were going to fix it and I just loved the way it looked.”
So she took photos of the blobs of tar and the clumps of asphalt, pictures which soon found their way into new collages as the beautifully deformed offspring of that crack in the sidewalk.
This typifies Johanna’s approach to ideas – if she likes something she uses it, rather than worrying about wider meanings. “I’m not the type of person who feels like I have some really important, profound things I need to impart onto the viewer,” she says. “I’d much rather have the viewer impart onto the work or onto me.”
And she has noticed that people place a lot of personal meaning onto the pictures they like. Once someone explained to her how one sequence of her images showed the evolution of women’s place in history.
“And who am I to say they’re wrong?” she says.“I love the idea of being part of the zeitgeist. That there are these ideas floating around and sometimes they land in one of my pieces and I don’t even realize it.”
Words by Alex Kahl.