A still from Erin Johnson’s video “Lake (Skowhegan, ME)” on view at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. Courtesy of CMCA

A year ago at this time, Erin Johnson was deeply ensconced in the green of Skowhegan, luxuriating in the promise of a still-young Maine summer and exploring the early stages of a new idea for an art project that stemmed from a story in The New York Times.

The article reported on an Australian bush tomato that had the ability to change its sex. Researchers named the plant Solanum plastisexum, with Greek and Latin roots meaning “changeable sex.” The plant itself was interesting enough, but especially intriguing to Johnson was the part of the story that described how the tomato plant had been known but unclassified for decades, because it didn’t fit within plant-world norms.

“The researchers were saying that this plant was potentially the most diverse plant in its sexual expression of anything that has yet to be described. But in the past, when this plant had been looked at by other botanists, there was an inability to see the plant – or a desire to ignore it – because it didn’t fit the binary constructed by previous botanists,” Johnson said. She wondered what had shifted for this team of researchers “so they were able to see this plant for its complexity and ambiguity. I wanted to understand it further.”

As a resident at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, she began her project by collaborating on a video with painter Maria Fragoso that involved other Skowhegan residents feasting on tomatoes while reflecting poses of feast scenes from famous paintings. The result of her investigation is on view – finally – at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland. “Unnamed for Decades” is a two-gallery installation of videos, photographs and sculpture, including two videos she made last summer at Skowhegan.

A still from an Erin Johnson video about nonbinary tomato plants. Courtesy of CMCA

Stemming from that initial interest in the Australian tomato plant, the work in the show continues Johnson’s exploration of science, desire and human collectivity, among other themes. It was supposed to open in March but, like everything else, was delayed by the pandemic. Most of the show was installed before the COVID-19 crisis forced CMCA to close, and it sat dormant until the museum reopened July 1. It’s on view through Sept. 20.

Johnson, a visiting assistant professor of art at Bowdoin College who splits her time between New York and Maine, is grateful that people can experience the show in person. Although her videos translate well to a virtual experience, she made the videos and designed the installation to be seen in real life.

Johnson is the second recipient of the Ellis-Beauregard Fellowship, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 grant and the promise of a show at CMCA. The grant led directly to much of the work in “Unnamed for Decades,” she said. “There was a lot of following one’s nose, one thing leading to another. I was able to allow things to be serendipitous, and that is something I really appreciate about the structure of the award. It does allow for a kind of unfolding that other kinds of funding often don’t.”

In her case, Johnson was able to follow her nose to the laboratory at Bucknell University, where the researchers who are studying the nonbinary plant are based. In one of the videos in the exhibition at Rockland, “There are things in this world that are yet to be named,” she presents their work alongside footage that she filmed in the Australian section of Los Angeles’s Huntington Botanical Garden, while she was in California for a residency following Skowhegan. “There are things in this world that are yet to be named” also includes, as a backdrop, a recitation of love letters between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman and interviews with botanist Tanisha Williams.

Her next project, which began pre-COVID, involves the island Cayo Santiago off the coast of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Primate Research Center. Among other things, the research center explores links between primate biology and human health, a timely subject given the pandemic. It’s been a whirlwind year since Skowhegan. In the months that followed her summer residency until the pandemic closed everything down, she traveled to Puerto Rico, completed the residency in California, finished making art for “Unnamed for Decades” and installed the show.

“I’m really pleased the exhibition is open for the summer, which means people will get to see it in person. I also appreciated the virtual opening,” Johnson said. “So many people tuned in who are friends and colleagues based all over the country and the world, who wouldn’t have been able to come to Rockland for the opening. I’m very grateful.”


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