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Book Review: Until the Kingdom Comes


Book Review Until the Kingdom Comes By Simen Johan Reviewed by Sarah Bradley I typically watch movies and TV shows on the screen of my laptop. It's not the best resolution and really only ideal for personal viewing, so when a friend recently suggested watching a CGI heavy TV series on the super fancy HD TV at a place she was house sitting it sounded like fun.

Until the Kingdom Comes. By Simen Johan.
Yossi Milo Gallery, 2014.
 
Until the Kingdom Comes
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley

Until the Kingdom Comes
By Simen Johan
Yossi Milo Gallery, 2014. 64 pp., 26 color and 2 black & white illustrations, 12½x15½". 


I typically watch movies and TV shows on the screen of my laptop. It's not the best resolution and really only ideal for personal viewing, so when a friend recently suggested watching a CGI heavy TV series on the super fancy HD TV at a place she was house sitting it sounded like fun. About half way through the episode I was so distracted by the digital manipulation that I started shouting "green screen!" at the television every time I noticed it, which was often enough that I now don't really remember what happened in the episode. I can kind of be a jerk about these things.

To be fair, I only really run into problems when I’m asked as a viewer to accept a hyperreality and the edges are showing. I find myself more willing to suspend disbelief for work that doesn’t seem insistent on being perceived as real. Which is precisely the case with Simen Johan’s Until the Kingdom Comes, so it doesn't really bother me when the seams of his digital manipulation are visible. Instead, Johan's work seems intentionally balanced on the edge of judgment, combining clearly constructed images with others that have been only lightly manipulated, and some that are reportedly not altered at all. Johan's work thrives in the grey zone between credulity and doubt, at the extremities of believability.

Until the Kingdom Comes. By Simen JohanYossi Milo Gallery, 2014.

The 26 images in Until the Kingdom Comes depict a world that is both beautiful and eerie, somewhere between fantasy and fever dream. It opens with end papers that seem to be either a type of marble or crystalline structure rendered from fragments of the rainbow shimmer of gasoline on water. Clever sequencing allows the strangeness to creep in slowly. A cloudy landscape, the backside of a hippo floating in deeply-dark water, giraffes reaching their heads into a foggy sky — and suddenly corpses of two white caribou whose antlers are tangled around a tree, stalactites of icicles making a chandler of their antlers. It is an arresting image, and haunting — its beauty cannot override a sense of anxiety and dread, the stillness of death, and a number of questions. This can’t possibly be real, can it? It’s a turning point; the next image of an impossible nightmarish knot of massive snakes that seem to have developed a cooperative hunting technique confirms the extent of Johan’s hand in the creation of these images. Some animals are clearly alive; others seem to be reanimated museum specimens.

Until the Kingdom Comes. By Simen JohanYossi Milo Gallery, 2014.
Until the Kingdom Comes. By Simen JohanYossi Milo Gallery, 2014.

The images in Until the Kingdom Comes span nearly 10 years, and from the dates on Johan's website those that feel the most artificial are often the earlier works. Even so, the images in the book flourish in proximity to each other. The occasional suspiciously striking landscape photograph intermixes with images of animals, who are depicted as human stand-ins, in some places decorations, and at times allowed to be others. A handful indicate anthropomorphism — a pair of owls sits atop a picnic table, seemingly sharing a laugh; enraptured flamingos make a lover's knot with legs and necks; two foxes with bloody snouts weep together in the snow. A lemur languishes on a tree branch with a flower in hand, in a pose reminiscent of classical painting, not unlike the lush still-life of pomegranates, snails and marmosets; a primate-adored cornucopia. An orangutan, buffalo and rhino make up trio of compelling portraits, notable for the at once sympathetic and inscrutable nature of their subjects.

Until the Kingdom Comes. By Simen JohanYossi Milo Gallery, 2014.

The book is large and loose leaf (read: big and floppy) and printed on 100% post consumer waste paper — newsprint, really. Given the inherent mattness of the paper, I imagine it's quite a different experience to view the images in person, but the dullness of the page pulls you closer, and the fine printing holds up. Johan's use of animals is immediately comparable to the spectacular paintings of Walton Ford. Each has crafted a contemporary bestiary; as Ford's paintings implicitly feel like critiques of a troubled past, Johan's images seem to be revelations of an angst-ridden future. People are never present, but humanity’s waste is apparent in the trash and rubble that dot the edges of some of Johan’s images. Animals are depicted in landscapes where they don't naturally belong; species that don’t typically cohabitate share the frame. It’s clear that something is wrong; a few of the animals seem privy to some secret truth, be it the final days of a kingdom, the beginning of a new one, or the end of it all. —Sarah Bradley

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SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor and costumer, as well as Editor of photo-eye Blog. Some of her work can be found on her occasionally updated blog.

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