Bambi Johnson is a multidisciplinary artist with the rare ability not only to recreate strikingly human features using unlikely materials, but to do so with equal parts humor and reverence. Soft Stuff, her collection of sculpture prints, inspires an open appreciation for our privy parts while giving us one more excuse to keep our minds in the gutter.
How did you get started in art?
I finished my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts in March 2014. It was only after I graduated that I started to finalize work and actively pursue exhibition opportunities.
What is it about your sculptures that makes us think “human”?
I mention transference a lot when I talk about my work: how ideas translate. Whilst interpretation is varied and materials imperceptible, it seems that the majority of audiences are able to acknowledge the theme of humanism in my work through my use of simple singular forms without distraction and fleshy colour; and the titles help as well.
How do you choose your materials?
My mind is always open to the potential of finding materials, and I tend to stumble across them rather than actively seek them out. For that reason they are often everyday kinds of things. I do have a preference for materials that are soft and palpable, and I am particularly sensitive to colour. Lightness, or a lack of colour, and pastels akin to variants of flesh are of real appeal to me.
The names of your sculptures are playfully salacious: Finger, Mussel, Petite Preserve, Rhoid. Are you making a statement, or are you just a fan of lewd humor like the rest of us?
Both, I name them as they are; it’s like calling a spade a spade. If there are opportunities to insight humor I will take them. In a way it offers an entry point for viewers.
What do you mean by entry point?
Entry points or access points are cues within artworks which assist a viewer in becoming more involved in the work. They often suggest something about the concept. It can be a title or maybe colours; anything really that aids in giving the audience something to contemplate or read into.
Do you have a name for your collection of prints as a whole?
Yes, Soft Stuff.
Why is sexuality such a big part of your work?
Many reasons. Truthfully, I had a mother that created a lot of disturbing experiences for my sister and I growing up. Confronting sexuality in my work is a way to acknowledge and indemnity those experiences and to create a discourse that promotes positive sexuality. I also find the subject generally amusing and the denial of the female form within western society disappointing.
You sculpt; but you also produce prints of your sculptures. What different effects do these two ways of viewing the pieces achieve?
The Soft Stuff sculptures were fragile and totally transient, intended to be deconstructed and discarded because there was no real way of preserving them without altering their softness. They exist now solely in this singular mnemonic photographic form. Photography enables me to shift the dimensions of my sculptures into 2D, controlling their perspective and consumption. Very addictive.
Addictive, even with the sculptures being so transient?
Yes, the control is addictive: being the only one to have seen the sculptures from all dimensions and handled them in a tangible way, and then making the choice on how they will be seen by others. That’s not something you get to exercise in day-to-day life.
Many of your sculptures look precarious. Did you find yourself putting them back together over and over, or picking up thousands of grains of rice off the floor? What frustrations did you experience?
They were fragile and for me that was something essential to instilling a notion of femininity. I don’t recall struggling with the materials. Overall it was a pacifying process. What I disliked was waiting for the right light to document photographically. There are only two parts of the day in which I found the right light: in the morning between 9 and 11 a.m. and in the afternoon around 3 p.m.
You also sketch. Is one (sketching or sculpting) more fulfilling than the other? Do you explore the same themes in your sketches?
Before I studied art I could only draw; now I consider myself multidisciplinary. Sculpting is something I have grown into, whilst drawing is inherent for me. Just like my sculptures, the subjects of my tonal drawings are essentially mnemonic and aid in indemnifying life experiences from a feminine perspective. The varied motifs I draw are a kind of sentimental analogy. The leaf, for example, depicts a journey of disintegration and loss, which we can all relate to in one facet of our lives or another.
You’re based in Melbourne. Describe the city for those of us who haven’t been there.
Something indescribable makes Melbourne very eclectic and homely. It’s green and grey, old and new. In Melbourne there is a place for anybody to be anyone they choose to be. [It is] probably important to mention our weather as well. It can be stifling hot one minute and in the next the wind can whip a freeze so cold you think your tits will fall off. That’s Melbourne.
Does where you are influence your work?
Maybe, but I am not conscious of it.
Who or what inspires you? Are you inspired by music or other forms of art?
I am certainly a big fan of feminist works from artists like Hannah Wilke, Tracey Emin, and Carolee Schneemann. Many artists inform my practice and provide context, but in terms of inspiration I think my source is more self-centered in experience and memory and caught up in acknowledging the unconscious body.
Do you have a favorite book? A favorite quote?
No favorite quote. I find quotes poignantly painful. Like, “Fuck, that’s so true, I’m going to eat a packet of biscuits now.” I read a lot of popular fiction. Thirteen years ago [my favorite book] would have been Lord of the Rings, and I still love it, but I would have to say The Thief of Always by Clive Barker is a standout for me.
Are you a tortoise or a hare?
Probably a little of both at different times. I would be quite happy to live in a burrow or a shell.
Where can we see your work?
Right now part of my Soft Stuff series is on show at Brunswick Street Gallery here in Melbourne. I am working on a website at the moment, and I share a lot of my developing work on my Instagram page including updates on current exhibitions.
View Bambi’s work here.
All images © Bambi Johnson
Image titles (in order): Internus 2014 C-type print, Flats 2014 Giclèe print, Canal, Finger, Mussel, and Let’s Tit Together 2014 C-type prints