Sarah Anne Johnson, "House on Fire"
An artist recounts her grandmother's harrowing psychiatric mistreatment.
Mon Oct 19 2009
Rage; Photographs: Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, NY
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5
There are gaping holes in the shocking story told by Sarah Anne Johnson’s latest sculptures and drawings done on old photos, but the omissions speak volumes. Filtered through the artist’s own childhood memories, as well as first- and secondhand accounts, Johnson revisits the harrowing experience of her late grandmother, Velma Orlikow—one of a group of unwitting patients under the care of a CIA-funded psychiatrist who experimented with brainwashing techniques. Orlikow was subjected to various shock and drug therapies, as well as bouts of prolonged, medically induced sleep. If such a tale can have a lighter side, Johnson looks for it, while also conveying the shattering effects of Orlikow’s ordeal.
Orlikow, who’d originally sought treatment for postpartum depression, plays a starring role in the work, while Johnson’s mother remains an enigma, prompting the question of how the trauma might have passed down through the family. It’s also dubious how Johnson could find a comic element in her grandma’s situation, offering diminutive nude sculptures that depict her with a squirrel’s head or a nuclear cloud blossoming from her skull. (Did Orlikow herself have a sense of humor about what happened?)
Yet an elaborate doll house, which could have been the show’s most lighthearted component, gives sobering insight into Orlikow’s psychological hell, with its hallway going nowhere, foyer under water and melting kitchen walls. While her daughter and husband sleep, Johnson’s grandmother is shown dancing nude in the attic with her doctor, suggesting her sense of vulnerability.
Eventually, Orlikow gave her testimony during a class-action suit that ended in a settlement. Johnson succeeds in adding feeling to those facts with stunning glimpses into the depths of her grandmother’s suffering.—Merrily Kerr