Cents and Sensibility
Where the Poetry Is in the Physics
Sean M. Johnson needed 70,000 pennies, or $700 worth. What the Seattle artist had in mind was a pyramid-shaped sculpture, but with the top mostly sliced off, leaving only a gently rising base—a shape that gives the suggestion of building up to something but doesn't. Johnson had originally envisioned a full pyramid, but when he built a test model, he found the shape so recognizable that it shut his mind down—he just went, Oh, right, pyramid, and stopped looking. Instead, he wanted a shape that draws the eye and keeps it, that isn't a known quantity, so that trying to see it whole, you have to break it down and consider its parts, too. The pennies would be the only material. They'd rest on each other unattached, like loose shingles.
To get the pennies, he had to call ahead; it seems banks don't have vast penny populations just lying around. Eventually, Johnson received his boxes of wrapped rolls of pennies, took them to the LxWxH Gallery in Georgetown—run by another basically penniless artist, like him (he works by night as a bartender)—and knelt down on the floor beneath a skylight, where he arranged them into the sculpture. At first glance, it resembles a segment of roof. It's supported by a black platform about an inch thick. The pennies are a mash of color, Caribbean blue (oxidized) to dirt to gold.
In the mix there's a Canadian penny, an orphan, a currency not only locally valueless but exiled at home; Canada, like several nations, has done away with its one-cent coin. Among American pennies, there are alternating back sides: In 2010, the Lincoln Memorial image was abandoned in favor of an inoffensive design involving a shield shape by a Pennsylvania neoclassical painter who Wikipedia says studied with somebody who studied with somebody who studied with somebody who studied with Thomas Eakins. Pity the artist "honored" with the redesign; sensible people have been trying to eliminate the penny for a quarter of a century. At this point, it costs 2.41 cents to make a penny. (Zinc lobbyists were paid a reported $340,000 by Jarden Zinc Products to block a 2011 bill called the Cents and Sensibility Act. There have been other such bills: the Price Rounding Act, the Currency Overhaul for an Industrious Nation Act.) The penny "survives."
Johnson's sculpture, however minimal it appears—and it implicitly references the flat metal "carpets" of 1960s artist Carl Andre—is full of information. Andre once said, "It is futile for an artist to try to create an environment because you have an environment around you all the time," and "A place is an area within an environment that has been altered in such a way to make the general environment more conspicuous." Johnson's sculpture is a place or area like this, a Russian doll of information about economics. Its title is Wealth. (The title of the full show is Pieces of a Whole.) Wealth is on display through May 4, for sale for $10,000 plus the $30 per hour that it will take for Johnson to come and install it (around 40), totaling $11,200. It's unlikely that anybody will buy the pennies. When Johnson walked out of the bank with boxes in his arms, he had essentially turned 700 perfectly spendable dollars into nothing. Presumably he can convert it back. He says the idea for the pennies came to him during the election in November, when he had the feeling that his individual, non-swing-state vote was worthless. This stack of pennies is a pretty good demonstration of the paradox that each of us is as unique as everyone else.
In the past, Johnson's sculptures have used domestic furnishings and toys, broken apart and rearranged precariously, to touch on the housing crisis, racial polarization, being a kid, and the tension of family living rooms. He has crime-taped couches to walls, suspended little chairs in the air with balloons. After his parents' house was foreclosed on, he loosely tacked a china cabinet to the wall with red tape, and most of its white dishes spilled out and crashed on the floor; he made this piece for the last solo show he had, in 2010 at Howard House, which closed shortly thereafter for economic reasons.
Four other pieces are at LxWxH with the pennies. One delivered a shock when it fell over and crashed into the wall while I was visiting. The artist walked over and set it aright, precariously balancing a heavy, ornate antique chair with curving legs on the brutish edge of one sawed-off leg, in a tipped position as if it's frozen mid-fall. Next to the chair, standing stock upright, is a stack of spools of colored thread; I don't quite know how the elements connect, but the poetry is in the physics. The same goes for another sculpture, Retirement Plan, of 401 clothespins glued long sides together into a chain slung over a metal hanger like ammunition.
The two other pieces are harder, grimmer. Each is a portrait of a smiling lost child, taken from photographs on FBI posters found around Seattle. Johnson turned the photographs into dot portraits, working like a pointillist painter, but using drywall nails hammered into a pale plain slab of drywall instead of paint on a canvas. He carefully hit the nails in to varying depths, so their heads rise and fall across the surface, forming an undulating landscape in three dimensions. It has its own shadows. The dark gray nail heads are curved, soft, dimpled. One loss, just as horrible as every other.