Studio Visit: Kiel Johnson, The Animated World of Everything

Studio Visit: Kiel Johnson. Photo credit: Gary Brewer.

Studio Visit: Kiel Johnson: The Animated World of Everything in a Universe of Possibilities

By Gary Brewer

“Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and let’s it act of it’s own accord.” John Cage

“The rules are simple. Take your work seriously, but never yourself, seriously. Pour in the love and whatever skill you have, and it will come out.” Chuck Jones


To capture this fleeting world with exuberance, taking it all in and creating a visual diary, a record of sense impressions in a stream of consciousness of ideas flowing like a swift current in a river of images. Animated, humorous, rich and filled with energy, Kiel Johnson’s drawings and sculptures have an expansiveness that reaches into the world and leaves nothing untouched. In Kiel’s work no subject is mundane; everything is a potential idea for his marvelous inventive mind and eye. His is an incessant need to create and record his experience – the world is his palette; a chair, a framed landscape, Greek sculpture or the desert flora seen through a car window on a road trip are all equals in his egalitarian universe of possibilities.

In Kiel’s world it is not that one idea is superior to another that draws him to his subject. Kiel said, “Even a bad idea can be transformed into a good one if you work hard enough; it will become something through the pure energy and intention that one fills it with.”

His studio is full of drawings, sculptures and an Airstream camper that is being renovated for use and has been included as part of an art installation. Robots, spacecraft, Egyptian Gods, the boat that Charon takes souls to the underworld across the river Styx are hung and placed here and there, giving his studio a richly layered cross-cultural universe of symbols. It is an amalgam of images and objects all realized with the gesture and energy of an animator giving every line and curve the breath of life.

Kiel’s art is a representation of himself. There is no space between himself and his style. Style in his work is the physical embodiment of the energy and excitement that courses through his veins compelling him to capture the world and all of its parts in brilliant explosive synapses firing in a relentless cadence. It is a form of memory, a visual language that speaks in pictures, lines and forms. Kiel said to me, “I speak in a visual language. The amount of words that we have spoken today is more words than I have spoken in the last four days. Sometimes they are just sentences, or a haiku; other times they are paragraphs and some works are novels.”

The drawings are a marvel of energy, humor and a deeply sophisticated language of composition and form. As I walked into his studio I noticed a barren hill a short distance away. It stood singularly in the cityscape; at the top was a somewhat forested stand of trees, palm trees, shrubs etc. It had a strange Roald Dahl like quality in its displaced theatricality; some fairy tale secret garden on a barren, dry grassy hilltop within a urban network of freeways, railroad tracks, streets and neighborhoods. I mentioned it to Kiel and he laughed and said that it was the first drawing he made when he moved into his studio.

The drawing is a deeply detailed work with ribbons of freeways speeding around, their curved looping patterns interlacing the landscape with concrete lanes circumnavigating on elevated structures. The neighborhood is chock-a-block with towers, homes and buildings. The single hill rising up like a giant ant mound with the trees and buildings nestled onto its peak. The drawing is a dystopian Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, blended with a darkly comedic element of zany Tex Avery screwball cartoons. We laugh as we acknowledge the madcap pace of our swiftly moving world and of our precarious moment, teetering over an abyss like Wiley Coyote, as Road Runner speeds away, with only the “Beep, Beep” to let us know that we are had!

He is currently working on a series of drawings for an exhibit at Paul Kopeikin Gallery that are based on his “Everything” drawings that he began 5 years ago. The drawings, such as “50 Landscapes for the Price of One” and a series of drawings of chairs that he crowd-sourced from friends, asking for the chairs that they sat in at the end of a long day. It is an inventory of chairs, as a subjective state of mind, the place where one sits to relax or work that best suits the friends needs. Another piece is a collection of all of the Greek sculptures that catch Kiel’s attention at the Getty Villa where he has an ongoing working relationship, creating works at the museum for various projects.

There is something unique in his need to record life and to share his enthusiasm for the voyage through the world that each day presents. Life’s rich pageant comes in many guises. He said of his images of transport, “I use boats and airplanes, space ships and covered wagons as representations of adventure and discovery. It is a human need to go beyond the boundaries and confines of the world that we inhabit. As an artist, my work reflects this sense of exploration. To me nothing in the world is mundane; everything can be seen and made to express wonder. I am driven to create diaries of my world, my travels and the inventory of my existence.” It is an existential need, driven by an unnameable source, drawn with humor and wit. The accretion of everyday things creates an archive of his life written in a language of animated wonder.

Studio Visit: Kiel Johnson. Photo credit: Gary Brewer.

His sculptures emerge organically from the drawings. Kiel said of this, “I make drawings and move through all of the different versions of an image until something catches my interest. When I can see the drawing as a sculpture and can recognize a challenge that will satisfy some need, I create a physical object. I have worked in cardboard a great deal but have recently returned to ceramics, which is something I did years ago. There is a similar immediacy to building with clay that satisfies me. It is like cardboard in that I make slabs and cut shapes and piece them together. It is immediate and direct. I did not like being categorized as a cardboard artist, so this shift back to a medium I started with was a natural development and freed me from being pigeonholed. What is important is the directness and immediacy.”

Kiel spoke about the ‘genetics of place’ and how he can search for material and subjects beyond the confines of his studio and the immediate neighborhood, and how he often chooses things near him or that have come to him. The chairs for instance that we were sitting on, came from a neighbor who asked if he wanted them as he was throwing them out. Kiel took the chairs to use in his outside area and then used the rattan patterning of the woven material as a source for pressing his ceramic sculptures into to create surface patterns. He walked out into the street and used the manhole covers near his studio to create more surface texture. He told me, “I could have found more interesting textures to use if I searched around, but I like the idea of the local genetics of place and random chance, like these chairs finding me. It weaves into my work another layer of my personal experience, a diary of where I am and the things in my immediate surroundings that gives the work a memory of the time and place where I worked and where the sculptures were made. It deepens the diaristic needs I have in chronicling my journey.” The creative life and life in general, the intentional and the accidentals fused into a metaphoric whole.

Kiel has used his skills to create animated, stop-motion commercials for Uber and other companies, as well as workshop/classes with college students, doing collaborative projects to create sculptural installations. One piece in particular was a covered wagon done at a College near the Great Salt Lakes in Utah. He gave different groups of students the task of creating different parts based on one of his drawings. The students were also asked, “What would you bring if you were on a journey leaving everything behind to travel in a covered wagon from the East coast heading West?” The result is an astonishing wonder; a beautifully crafted object representing the student’s imagined needs for such a journey. Kiel had done several of these projects before and always felt that the photos of the installation could have been better. ”The school where we created this sculpture was 60 miles from Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. When the piece was complete I packed it up and drove it out to the site-specific sculpture and photographed the covered wagon within the Spiral Jetty. It created such an incredible image!”

Art is a form of memory carrying within it the genetic markers of a time and place and of an individual life. Like a wind across a great open plain, it transports the seeds and pollen, the scents and the subjective atmospherics of a world.

Kiel Johnson works with such a powerful force of energy that his drawings and sculptures look as though they were carried in on the wind. The swiftness of his boldly drawn images warp and bend under the force of his imagination carrying with it everything the world has to offer. It is Kiel’s openness and sense of wonder about the world, and the understanding that we are all travelers leaving a trace embedded in the objects we make, that animates them with the breath of creation.

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