John Cage once taught a class on mushroom identification at the New School for Social Research in New York. Mycology is a great pedagogical model, he explained to the school’s president. Nothing’s better for teaching students to pay attention. Whitney Johnson seems to get this intuitively, and she has widened her artistic scope to include foraging more generally. How to turn this experience of the world and its materials into artwork is the tricky question. For Cage’s students, the answer was decidedly avant-garde: his students were Fluxus and Happenings artists. For Johnson it is somewhat more conventional: she grinds black walnuts into ink for painting spirited landscapes and symbols, prints with wit on turkey and chicken feathers, pulps odd shapes from golden curtain crust fungus. Radical ecologist Nance Klehm, who melds urban foraging and human composting with the strictures of fine art display, offers a more contemporary model, taking Cage’s ethos into the present, where ecology has a new political urgency. Process is crucial here, but communication—either of some final form, or else of processes themselves—remains a critical purview of art. Johnson’s artwork may not be saying all she has to say.
—Lori Waxman 3/25/16 3:26 PM