Tucked inside a small gallery space at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition is Gwynne Johnson’s powerful solo exhibition, This Doubtful Paradise. Informing Johnson’s photography is the work of Irish playwright Brian Friel and, in particular, his characters that embody the lives and experiences of Irish emigrants. Conflating images of Ireland and Chicago, Johnson’s photographs reveal an ambiguity: the images reflect the uncertainly of place that emigrants experience. In the exhibition text, Johnson states that through these experiences, the displaced must reconcile their past and present. These antithetical notions are interwoven throughout Johnson’s images.
Only two of Johnson’s eleven photographs on display contain human figures but, as they are seen from behind or their face is obstructed, the viewer is denied access to them. The majority of Johnson’s photographs, however, reveal an abandoned space. All of these locations have been touched by mankind in one way or another, but their trace is all that remains. We are, much like the emigrants to which Johnson refers, simultaneously confronted by absence and presence in these images. Unable to reconcile these contradictory concepts, the viewer is left feeling displaced.
Johnson’s images are imbued with a feeling of nostalgia – a longing perhaps for identity, memory, or home. For Johnson, these experiences are pertinent – born in Chicago and raised in Ireland, the history of dislocation and the process of sifting through memories and meanings is a lived one. The images convey a feeling of isolation and perhaps even melancholia. Johnson may speak to experiences of emigration but this series goes beyond that by speaking directly to the human condition.