Artist Zach Johnsen Explores Surreal Folklore at Hellion Gallery

By Keely Burkey
Posted in Overcup Press, on June 08, 2016

Portland was in for a treat at First Thursday! On June 2nd Zach Johnsen, one of the featured artists in The Tall Trees of Portland, debuted his “Folklore” exhibition at Hellion Gallery. The art show lived up to its name—Johnsen’s paintings explored a variety of themes borrowed from Slavic fables and campfire tales, including ghosts, the plague, witchcraft, and spirits. For example, take a look at “The Masque of the Blue Death,” which captures the chaotic emotional intensity of plague and flu epidemics.

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“The Masque of the Blue Death.” 16x30". Acrylic, oil, and smokebomb on canvas. (Image source)

Here’s another featured painting from “Folklore,” titled “Chupacabra.” It’s a more literal interpretation of his folklore theme, but just as powerful. The portrayal of the mythical beast, here imagined as an iteration of a vampire bat, seems almost to recall art popular in graphic novels. However, perhaps this is exactly what Johnsen is pointing out—the fact that our modern conception of mythology is now cultivated and spread through mediums like comic books, serialized TV shows, and superhero movies.

chupacabra

“Chupacabra.” 22x20". Watercolor, pen, and ink on paper. (Image source)

Finally, I couldn’t help but include my own personal favorite from the exhibition— “Cham Deer.” The painting plays on the animal shapeshifter myths prevalent in dozens of cultures around the world. However, Johnsen’s take on the story is singular—rather than integrating human and animal entities, Johnsen portrays a human form captured within an animal form. To see the human skeleton, painted with realistic detail, within the much more abstract deer silhouette gives the agency and power to the animal counterpart rather than the human who chose to take the form. It’s a playful (yet sinister) look at the myths we’ve grown up with and incorporated into our civilization, and a play between light and dark themes that has been the focus of Zach Johnsen’s art for years.

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“Cham Deer.” 14x17’’. Acrylic and ink on paper. (Image source)

If you missed the chance to see the show on its opening night, don’t despair! “Folklore” will be exhibited in Hellion Gallery throughout June. And if these amazing paintings make you hungry for more Zach Johnsen in your life, we’ve got you covered. Visit Johnsen’s website, or follow his Instagram feed @zenvironments. You’ll never read a fairy tale the same way again!