Entering Kim Johnson’s Cabinet of Curiosity

“Caged Animal” offers a peek into another world.

“Caged Animal” offers a peek into another world.

Tentacles, furry tufts, open wounds and oozing fluids simultaneously repel and incite the viewer’s macabre urges to touch and poke. Kim Johnson’s exhibit Wunder Kammer, on display at the Winchester Cultural Center through July 17, draws upon a 16th-century tradition of displaying collections of biological and scientific curiosities. Tactilely rich and experimental, the exhibit contains the sense of wonder characteristic of an emerging artist exploring forms and finding her way forward.

Johnson’s curiosity cabinet explores a fusion of plant, mineral and animal forms. In the floor sculpture “Life and Limb,” a tree branch is bandaged with a bloodied nub peaking out. As with the wounded branch, Johnson fixates on decay and deterioration. White maggots crawl upon wood in “Natural Cure” and a bruised lunglike form with dangling medical tubing is poised for draining in “Natural Cure II.” Is the implied cure the naturally occurring cycle of putrefaction and decomposition? This dark suggestion festers in the fungal clusters.

Rough-hewn wall-mounted planks, accented with metal latch or handle, represent cabinet doors—portals inviting curious eyes to peek inside. A variety of textures exist within the orifices: wounds composed of red-stained burlap; scratched paint; small bundles of faux bone; gessoed and stitched lumps of fabric (invoking a Frankenstein quality); and curious eyes that stare back. The peek-a-boo provokes curiosity. You get the sense the artist is discovering how to fully exploit this mechanism. Future works could further mix materials, making viewers look deeper and work harder to comprehend repugnantly beautiful forms.

A few works examine the organic refuse of emotion. “Portrait of Tears” represents a tear duct discharge. A coiled intestinal lump in “Gut Instinct” represents the stomach knot of any organism facing stress. And the taut thread of “Survivor” quivers, a subtle spring-loaded snare.

Wunder Kammer’s theme of eyes invokes the presence of the artist, placing her within the cabinet peeking out at visitors. However, the works “Street Soldier” and “Peace Keeper” stray into a Native American deco-vibe with sticks wrapped in fur and twine, and tribal-esque iconography with bear claws, skulls and other dangling ornamentation. These works feel somewhat at odds with the overall wunderkammer objective, as they remain mostly decorative rather than positing organic fusions and life-form samplings. As evidenced by the exhibit postcard, the eye peering out from a hole within the boards is already an intriguing self-portrait, sans decoration.

The two large paintings “Feral in Release” and “Feral in Captivity” seem at odds with their rectangular formats, the large panels crying out for the organic treatment given to all the wall sculptures. The content of the paintings, a single oversize eye pocketed with eggs, wisps and flowers, is portrayed with a verdant color palette situated on a backdrop of light washes and dripping paint. The nebulous drippy background feels unresolved, filling space, while awaiting a more satisfying conclusion. The “feral” concept is just out of reach—perhaps all we’re lacking is a little more visual information on the mysterious beast belonging to this forlorn eye?

Johnson has cracked the door on a portal of curios and concepts, with interesting decisions to make, as she delves deeper into her cupboard.

Wunder Kamer

Winchester Cultural Center, 3130 McLeod Dr., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tue-Fri, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat, through July 17, 702-455-7340.

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