Artist Jess Johnson shares the arts and pop culture obsessions she’s loving right now

11 October 2019
By Fashion Quarterly

We wanted to add some fresh things to our “must-do” list, so we turned to artist Jess Johnson for her arts and culture recommendations, and any current obsessions.

Known for her colourful, dynamic work, the New York-based Kiwi recently unveiled an installation at Christchurch Art Gallery and undertook a residency at Auckland’s iconic McCahon House.


I’ve never been inside Sir Ian Athfield’s fantastical house, but I always crane my neck to stare at its sprawling white igloos for as long as I can when driving past it on the Wellington motorway. Athfield was influenced by the Japanese architectural movement Metabolism, which fused ideas about architectural megastructures with those of organic biological growth and parallels themes in my artwork.


The Kohler is a small museum an hour north of Milwaukee. It has a unique reputation for collecting and preserving the entire environments and estates of so-called outsider or self-taught artists. The work they do recreating environments in large-scale installations gives audiences a true sense of how each artist lived, worked and was totally engrossed by their vision.


Susan Te Kahurangi King is a New Zealand artist who creates dense symphonic drawings of repetitive patterns and cartoon-like mash-ups. She also has autism and has been non-verbal since the age of four, so her drawing developed as her prime means of communication and expression. Her works communicate something intense and complex to the viewer, but not in any language we know, so they feel to me as if they’re prodding parts of my brain that have never been touched before. For me, that’s an incredibly rare and sought-after experience in art.

Local gallery

Dirt in Wellington is an amorphous gallery/hybrid space that mainly exists on the internet, and that people much cooler and younger than me keep mentioning. I haven’t quite worked out what Dirt do or who they are, which is appealing in itself because it means they’re creating their own thing in a world I don’t necessarily understand anymore, instead of following the prescribed gallery model, which may well be in its late-capitalist death throes anyway.

International gallery

Some would consider Desert Island in Brooklyn to be a weird bookstore, not a gallery, but nevertheless it’s where I find the work of many of my favourite artists. It’s run by Gabe Fowler, who walked away from his career in the art world to open the space. His love and encyclopedic knowledge of comics is infectious, and he contributes a huge amount to the community, running an annual comics festival and producing a free quarterly comics anthology called Smoke Signal. He can also be quite taciturn and blunt, which makes a New Zealander like me nervous as hell, but that’s all part of the experience of visiting.


Planningtorock, aka Jam Rostron, is a British producer and musician who lives in Berlin, and whose music exudes a defiant energy, radical strength and warmth. Jam is a non-binary femme and I find them incredibly fascinating both as a person and artist. Musically their sound is influenced by early ’90s house music and is very simple, repetitive and emancipatory. There’s something about the economy of sound and pure emotion that I really tune into while drawing. Beulah Loves Dancing is a song for Jam’s autistic sister who loves dancing to house music. The music video for it is so joyful and life affirming that I use it like a magic pill to bring me out of whatever mood I’m in.


The third series of the New Zealand adult cartoon Aroha Bridge is in production and will screen on Maori Television. It follows the stories of a chaotic multicultural family and a brother-sister band called Hook Ups. It’s written by Jessica Hansell – also known as Coco Solid – who’s a very funny and talented writer, rapper, artist, director, producer and Fulbright Scholar, and the animation is done by my collaborator Simon Ward and the team that makes my own artwork animations. I may secretly resent the time Simon spends on the cartoon, but I’m also behind it all the way because they’re making such a cool and important cultural contribution that could be as impactful to a generation as Footrot Flats was to New Zealanders in the ’80s.


I just finished watching Camping, a UK series by the comedian Julia Davis. I don’t think I’ve ever made so many involuntary noises while watching something on my laptop by myself before. Julia’s particular style of comedy is horrifically awkward as she slowly and joyfully eviscerates her cast of sad, lonely characters. The delight she takes in bounding over any line of decency is mesmerising in a jaw-on-the-floor, impending-car-crash kind of way.


Octavia Butler was an African American science-fiction author who wrote 15 perfect books before passing away in 2006. I read her Xenogenesis and Parable series when I was an art student and feel they irrevocably altered my world view and development as a person. Her perspectives on race, gender and power dynamics opened my mind after a decade spent consuming mostly monochromatic science-fiction books written by white male authors.


@jaimiewarrenisyourfriend is a New York-based artist whose work draws deep from the well of American popular culture and weirdo childhood nostalgia. She uses DIY prosthetics, elaborate sets and casts of community performers to create productions that feel like absurdist fever dreams. Instagram is a perfect medium for an introduction to her work for those unable to experience its full glory in the flesh.

Photos: Art News, Piki Films Ltd


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