New Magic & Costume Shoppe: Paintings by Yohana Junker, Masks by David Earl Johnson, & Clown Costumes by Raymond Thunder-Sky, Thunder-Sky, Inc.
“New Magic & Costume Shoppe” is the title of the show at Thunder-Sky, Inc., featuring David Earl Johnson’s masks, Yohana Junker’s paintings, and Raymond Thunder-Sky’s clown costumes and drawings.
Bill Ross, curator of the exhibition and co-founder of Thunder-Sky, Inc., suggests that what ties these three artists’ work together is a shared interest in expressing spirituality through their art. That’s a pretty broad theme, one that he sees as serious but handled in a “fun” way by these artists.
That’s easy enough to see in Thunder-Sky’s clown costumes and charming drawings, and Johnson’s masks embody that duality. But the Brazilian-born Junker, who currently lives in Indianapolis, makes paintings that are plenty serious but anything but fun.
So I see this not as a thematic exhibition or as a three-person show. It’s more like a couple of artists (both Johnson and Thunder-Sky could be called–take your pick–self-taught, folk, naïve, primitive, outsider, or visionary artists) plus one. Junker is the “plus one.”
From the 1980s until his death in 2004, Thunder-Sky walked the streets of Cincinnati carrying his art supplies in a toolbox. He cut a striking figure, wearing a white Cinergy hardhat, a ruffled Elizabethan-style collar, and bib overalls or a clown suit.
The possibly autistic son of the last full-blooded chief of the Mohawk tribe and the daughter of a Hungarian nobleman of the Hapsburg Dynasty documented construction sites around town in childlike colored-pencil and marker drawings. The title for the exhibition comes from his hand-printed commentary on one of these. The full text reads:
WE TEARING DOWN MORE OF HOUSES & APARTMENT ON HARRISON & HOMESTEAD PLACE THREE APT & 10 HOUSE WILL BEING RAZED TO CLEARING WAY FOR CONSTRUCTION OF NEW WESTWOOD MAGIC SHOP & COSTUME SHOPPE.
That statement capsulizes Thunder-Sky’s motivation in making these drawings. Keith Banner, co-founder of Thunder-Sky, Inc., which exists to preserve the artist’s body of work, explained in the obituary for Thunder-Sky in the Enquirer that “in his drawings, Raymond documented the destruction of urban blight, replacing it with his vision of heaven on earth. He was always drawing his next destination.”
Johnson, whose day job is as a fine carpenter, started making masks during a period of personal despair. While he was undergoing chemotherapy in 2004, his youngest son, Thor, committed suicide at age 23.
Johnson tried to work through his grief by writing plays and doing performances, but it was discovering mask making that helped him with the healing process.
In December 2005, Johnson purchased a diorama by Claudio Himinez, a Día de los Muertos artist, in a free-trade art gallery in Gainesville, FL. It was only about 12” square, and yet it included 62 individual masks, each one about 1 ½” tall. In the foreground, three workers sat at a table. The title of the piece was La Mascara. He realized then that masks could be the perfect vehicle for expressing his emotions.
Although Johnson does not consciously study mask-making traditions, his works reference many of them–African, Chinese, South Pacific, Venetian, Japanese Nō theater, and commedia dell’arte.
Still time spent in Hawaii introduced him to Polynesian masks. And an interest in the Japanese tea ceremony and the Zen aesthetic led to his “teapot men” in 2006. To mold these forms*, he turned teapots upside-down so the spout becomes the face’s nose. While Ying/Yang, 2009, does not replicate any specific Nō theater character, there is nonetheless a visual and aesthetic connection.
Seeing a sketch of a Venetian mask by an Italian artist friend he met on Myspace must have at least subconsciously influenced the long-beaked forms of Robirda, 2006, which is his friend’s name, and Loki, 2007 who in Marvel Comics is the adopted brother (perhaps a reference to his own experience of being adopted by an abusive family that he ran away from at 12) and arch-enemy of Thor, his son’s name. It’s impossible not to see a kinship with the traditional Venetian mask of the Medico della Peste or plague doctor although Johnson says the form was “made up of whole cloth.”
The fiercest mask in the show reminds me of Javanese masks. It is improbably called Peace Warrior, 2007. Horns sprout from the head and two reach around the face like aggressive spit curls. Another juts out like a devilish goatee. Delicate feathers on either side of the nostrils read like a strange moustache, and there are two snakelike fangs in the lower jaw.
Displayed at my eye level on an upended glass vase, you can see through the empty eye sockets. It’s an unnerving experience. When Johnson wore the mask at the opening, attendees found his appearance “discomforting.”
Collaboration is very important to Johnson, and this was his first mask to be painted by another artist. Johnson had developed a friendship on Myspace with the Pennsylvania artist Tammy Ogden. After sending her photographs of the mask, she asked to paint it. Because her work was so much about peace, he had nicknamed her “Peace Warrior,” which became the name of the piece.
Although the ferocity of the mask seems at odds with the concept of peace, Johnson relates Ogden’s rationale that in order to “stare down evil, you must be fierce.”
There is a synergy between Thunder-Sky’s and Johnson’s artworks. Thunder-Sky’s hardhat is hung on the wall and assumes a masklike quality. Their affinity is most clearly seen in the pairing of Johnson’s 2006 duke-blue Cereal Killer mask with one of Thunder-Sky’s clown costumes, which has a tropical-looking floral print on the right side and a faded pink madras for the other.
The mask is made from three cereal bowls and features bulging eyes and a menacing Bozo-the-Clown smile. It’s unsettling images like this of what should be comic figures that evoke coulrophobia or fear of clowns.
The mask’s title is a homophone for “serial,” and certainly an allusion to the fact that Johnson’s first wife’s brother, who had been a close friend for 27 years, was revealed as a serial killer after killing his wife and daughter before committing suicide in 2004.
Even though there are frightening elements in both artists’ work, my first reaction when I walked into the storefront space was of Mardi Gras. This thought was supported by the costumes in general and by the Venetian-style Loki and Robirda, which was painted by Johnson’s wife Karen Ann.***
This sense of revelry could have so easily been bolstered if Junker, who grew up in São Paulo, had taken it as her inspiration. Instead her abstract acrylic-on-canvas paintings with impastoed and scumbled surfaces are ponderous and gloomy. However, there are, almost literally, rays of hope shining through as she allows the light, which traditionally represents the divine, to emerge from a field of darkness.
Actually the spirituality expressed through art that Ross contends ties these artists together should be clearest here. After all Junker received a Masters of Theological Studies with an emphasis on spirituality, religion, and the visual arts from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis in the fall of 2011. She also studied Religious Aesthetics.
Junker is the only formally trained artist. At 11 she started taking private art classes from Nina Arbex, a Brazilian art. After moving to the U. S. in 1997, she was accepted into the Arts Magnet Program at Broad Ripple High School (1997-1998), Indianapolis, and finished her junior and senior years at Evanston (Illinois) Township High School taking advanced placement art her senior year. She graduated in 2000.
But as I said earlier, Junker was like the “plus one.” This is seen with the hanging (Ross shared that he installed the show intuitively) of three smallish paintings, all from 2012, above Thunder-Sky’s caution-orange mesh vest. They are named David, Uriah, and Bathsheba, the players in an Old Testament story from 2 Samuel 11.
After seeing Bathsheba bathing and being taken by her beauty, King David had her brought to him, and he seduced her. When she became pregnant, David called her husband, Uriah the Hittite, back from the war with the Ammonites, hoping that he would have sex with his wife and believe the child was his. When Uriah refused in loyalty to his troops, David ordered him into the frontlines in the siege of Rabbah, knowing that he would be killed.
God was displeased with David’s behavior and the child died. Subsequently Bathsheba bore David a son—Solomon–who would succeed him on the throne.
There’s no clue beyond the titles that these paintings had been Biblically inspired. The only connection that I can see between Junker’s paintings and that orange vest is that this is a cautionary tale about adultery.
My disappointment with Junker’s quite acceptable, if unremarkable, work is exacerbated by knowing she grew up in São Paulo. I wished she had been inspired by one of the world’s largest carnaval celebrations, which happens in Rio de Janiero where it’s estimated that two million people crowd the streets daily during the pre-Lenten bacchanal.
But I can’t fault her for not offering that. It’s not what her art is about. Instead I think it was a misstep by Ross to accept painter and filmmaker Alfred Eaker’s recommendation of her work for inclusion in this particular exhibition.
Mardi Gras is February 15, but the show closes on the ninth. Too bad because I could see celebrating Shrove Tuesday there.
Karen S. Chambers
*Johnson uses a process similar to Pop artist George Segal’s. After experimenting with clay, Johnson serendipitously found his medium: Rigid-Wrap at the arts-and-crafts store Michael’s. This plaster-impregnated gauze is used for orthopedic casts. By draping the dampened gauze over any object, a form is made. To make additions he can use plaster, sometimes over a wire armature. Then he uses clear acrylic to harden the shell, which can then be painted with acrylic paints. Many of Johnson’s masks, including Peace Warrior, were molded on his face and can only be worn by him.
**This phobia has only recently been recognized. Word detective Michael Quinion on his website worldwidewords.org/weirdwords found the first mention of it on the Internet in the 1980s. He explains, “Clown humor has always embraced cruelty in its teasing and insulting of other clowns and members of the audience. Clowns represent anarchy, the personifications of unreason, and a force of nature out of control. Who knows what really lies behind their unchanging painted faces and outlandish costumes? These are all good enough reasons for even the strongest and most adult of us to feel unease in the presence of a clown.”
***In a program called Masque Expressions—children celebrating life with art, Johnson and his wife conduct mask-making workshops. On view here are masks made by a group of kids from his neighborhood, Northside. Johnson has also worked with juvenile terminal cancer patients, making life masks of the children, which were then painted by them. The masks give parents a memorial to their children. Since this exhibition opened, Johnson has been contacted by Visionaries & Voices to do workshops. It is his hope that other groups will be interested. The website MasqueExpressions.org will launch soon.
New Magic & Costume Shoppe: Paintings by Yohana Junker, Masks by David Earl Johnson, & Clown Costumes by Raymond Thunder-Sky, Thunder-Sky, Inc., 4573 Hamilton Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45223, 513-823-8914, www.raymondthundersky.org. Through February 9, 2013. Fri., 6 p. m.-8 p. m., Sat.-Sun., 1 p. m.-4 p. m.
- Raymond Thunder-Sky, WE TEARING DOWN MORE OF HOUSES & APARTMENT ON HARRISON & HOMESTEAD PLACE THREE APT & 10 HOUSE WILL BEING RAZED TO CLEARING WAY FOR CONSTRUCTION OF NEW WESTWOOD MAGIC SHOP & COSTUME SHOPPE., colored pencil and marker on paper.
2) Raymond Thunder-Sky, Clown Suit and Clown Collar, fabric; David Earl Johnson, Cereal Killer, 2006, above Clown Suit . . . ; Johnson, Webbed Up (top) and WTF? (bottom) both 2008. All masks are made with Rigid-Wrap, plaster, clear acrylic, wire, and acrylic paint.