by Phil Gillen
“Sometimes I just have an idea of something that’s like, super dumb, and I want to go do it in real life. And then because I have an art degree, I call that Art. And they let me have a gallery space to do stupid things in.”
Michael Johnson doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Self-deprecating and approachable to a fault, the Omaha-based artist nonetheless creates work with a serious impact, grounded in issues close to the artist’s heart and community. In two projects held at the Petshop Gallery in Benson—an ongoing exhibition of paintings and comics entitled Gay Sex Heaven, and a one-time performance piece called Pluck—Johnson explores the ideas of self-embodiment and self-realization, grapples with their religious upbringing, and touches on transgender and queer identities with a perspective of joy and positivity.
The day after the Pluck performance in Benson, I caught up with the artist at a downtown coffee shop. We’ve been friends for a few years, running in some of the same social and artistic circles, and I’m the proud owner of several of their comic zines. The shows were the first time I’d seen Johnson’s work in a gallery setting, however, and we found much to dig into during our interview.
A collection of paintings with an accompanying comic book, Gay Sex Heaven spans the bulk of Petshop Gallery’s modest Benson art space. The highlight for me was a pair of paintings depicting first a classically styled Jesus and the Sacred Heart, alongside a near-identically posed cartoon bird, known as the “Wiggle Bird,” with a Sacred Apple.
“I was raised very Catholic, and finally broke away from that when I was twenty, but it was a super difficult thing to do because I had been so indoctrinated into all of that,” Johnson says in our conversation. “And there’s parts of me that still miss it, like I miss having this idea that everything really will be okay.” The show displays a sort of alternate theology, in which Heaven is a place of absolute acceptance and love. “What if religion actually meant the things that it was supposed to be?” the artist asks.
Besides the Sacred Heart/Apple diptych, the paintings that compose Gay Sex Heaven are colorful and more abstract, the figures more ambiguous, broken up by phrases of love and acceptance on the walls. “I think of them as angels,” Johnson explains. “Wing-shaped figures that don’t have faces… theologically canon.” Gay Sex Heaven looks to appropriate “only the good things” from religion to communicate the artist’s key themes of love and joy to be found in the transgender and queer experiences.
Pluck was a separate project, one that drew on the artist’s greatest artistic passion: performance art. In it, Johnson revisits the character of the Wiggle Bird, a cartoon-like motif that has made many appearances throughout the artist’s oeuvre. “It’s kind of a way for me to step outside myself and actually look at myself and my actions. I’ve actually mostly used the Bird character [as] more of a journal. I would just draw the bird doing the different mundane or traumatic things I had done that day,” says Johnson.
This time, instead of painting or sketching the character, they become it, by wearing an intensively-constructed bird costume of their own design. “The drawing of the bird being a stand-in for myself… actually being able to dress up as the bird was going to be a very cool continuation of that for me.” By re-embodying what had become an avatar or reflection of the self, the performance piece becomes a powerful metaphor of self-realization.
A major aspect of the performance was the artist’s first injection of testosterone while wearing the bird costume, as part of gender-affirming hormone therapy. Those themes of self-embodiment and self-realization “ended up tying in really well with doing the injection,” the artist shared. The gallery walls were decorated with streamers and baby-shower “It’s A Boy!” graphics, as the growing audience watched Johnson perform the strikingly mundane task of preparing a syringe and needle and carefully injecting the hormone into their upper thigh. As the needle was removed, the audience broke into applause. That contrast, between the mundane nature of the injection process itself and its enthusiastic reception as theatrical performance, is not lost on the artist. Johnson downplays the injection portion of their performance. “The biggest piece of art last night, I consider—aside from my work with the streamers, streamers are very difficult to put up, I discovered—was the Wiggle Bird costume. I wanted to do the injection wearing that, I guess to not take it seriously.”
The artist didn’t expect such a large crowd, but the audience, and turning such a mundane activity into a spectator sport, gives them an opportunity. “I think a lot of the trans work that I do is meant to normalize it as a concept, because it’s very normal to me,” Johnson explains. “I’m just trying out these new hormones! I’m seeing what’s up!” Doing their first injecting of testosterone in front of an audience is a way to “be hyper-visible, prove that it’s a normal thing, remove the mystique.” In that way, Johnson’s art is meant to counter the overblown and sensationalist discourse about trans issues. “We’re just trying to live our lives and it’s so much different from the hysteria about bathrooms.”
What may unite the two projects is that perspective on queer and trans experiences: not only are they utterly normal, but they can also be fulfilling, joyful, positive experiences. “The experience of being trans is so much different from the venom people spit at each other… The reality of being trans is something very joyful, it’s something that I’ve found a lot of peace in. I think that that’s something that not many cis people get to hear,” the artist muses. “This is something very joyful that’s significantly improved my life and my relationships with other people, because I can be myself so much more honestly and understand myself so much better than I did before.”
“For me it was more just celebrating the fact that I was able to come this far and be with this many people,” Johnson remarks towards the end of our conversation. “People are the heart of my work.” Whether the artist’s girlfriend, a large group of friends, or a growing list of artistic connections, Johnson has found their base of support in Omaha. “[Omaha] is where I have a community that I know will be supportive of the things I’m trying to do and will want to be a part of them themselves.”
Benson, in particular, has been formative. Johnson participated in a group show at Petshop in the past, as well as a solo show as a monthly featured artist at Jake’s, the cigar bar not many blocks away. Johnson also worked as an intern for Benson First Fridays, an experience they describe as “phenomenal.” “It was kind of the first time in my life where I felt like I was really part of helping something grow,” they say. “In Lincoln… I organized most of my own shows, and really dreamed of the day that I would get to have a show that somebody else curated, that I didn’t have to find the space for and basically do myself from scratch. This was the first time that I was organizing shows for other people, and getting to use those skills that I had learned… to help further the goals of other people in my community. It was the beginning of me realizing that was something that I wanted to do with the rest of my life: use my skills as an organizer not just to further my own artistic goals, but also to help other people who maybe don’t have the same social media or networking savvy that I do.”
That sense of community ties back to Johnson’s artistic approach, too. “I think the biggest thing for me, with participatory and performance art, the reason I’m so interested in that, is because it’s art that doesn’t necessarily have to be an object, it’s experiences that people have,” they say. “You can go and have an experience with an inanimate object, but those experiences become so much more rich and complex when they are experiences with other people. Creating and curating those experiences, or merely giving them an opportunity to happen, is what’s behind a lot of the art that I make.”
While much of Michael Johnson’s work deals with the individual issues of self-realization and personal fulfillment, it is always grounded by an active social awareness and strong sense of community and made for an audience of friends, colleagues, and neighbors. “I don’t think that art can really survive without a community,” the artist says. It’s that sense of community that makes Johnson’s work powerful, and makes those themes of self-realization and the joy of trans and queer identity sure to resonate with their audience.