Los Angeles-based artist Johnny Smith is no stranger to the surreal life. Take, for example, last February when one of his digital collages, which he shares almost daily on Instagram, went viral seemingly overnight: a composite image superimposing Rosie O’Donnell’s face over Steve Bannon’s, which O’Donnell immediately adopted as the avatar for her Twitter account, launching the image into the strange shelf life of Internet fame. Recalling the experience during a discussion with his good friend and collaborator Simon Haas (of LA design house The Haas Brothers) at NeueHouse Hollywood, where a selection of his work is on display through April, he remembers, “That was crazy. Everyone was saying that I had trolled the biggest troll. I’m always just searching for that viral moment.”
His otherworldly digital collages, which the Houston born artist began making as a way to combat his anxiety, are not always quite as pointedly political, but they are all undeniably provocative, delightfully bizarre, and unlike anything you have ever seen before. Comprised of interesting images that he finds on the Internet, from nature photography to pornography to film stills to Disney princesses, Smith skillfully cuts and pastes on his iPad to create vivid collages that are unabashedly tongue in cheek, juxtaposing the perverse with the serene and the serious with the silly. The result makes you laugh, or blush, or both, which he appreciates: “It’s cool to get a reaction out of somebody.”
Once the initial reaction wears off, you realize that his bold and unapologetic artwork is ripe with subtle commentary, perverting the familiar and embracing the strange, touching on everything from periods to sex to birth to pop culture. His colorful collages have the warped and winking feel of innocence meets irreverence, like a whispered inside joke with the viewer. He juxtaposes hands and mouths from porn stills onto wholesome images of cupcakes and flowers and bucolic nature scenes, the slight yet powerful shift in context poking fun at both the taboo of sex in our society and the over the top theatrics found in porn.
His avant-garde surrealism recalls both Dadaism and Pop Art and occasionally feels almost Dali-inspired: a blue eyeball peeking through pursed red lips, the characters from The Wizard of Oz tripping down The Yellow Brick Road towards a giant astronaut, a wave curling around a comically large pink foam roller. He takes cherished childhood images – Snow White collapsed on the forest floor surrounded by animals, or Ernie from Sesame Street – and teases them into obscenity by replacing Ernie’s mop of hair with a full bush of pubic hair or adding a Jack Daniels bottle to Snow White’s outstretched palm, distorting our collective nostalgia with a wink and a wicked smile. Some of Smith’s collages are silly, some are politically charged, some are otherworldly, some are sincere, and some are oozing with overt sexuality – the only thing they all have in common is that they land with a powerful impact.
Although Smith maintains that he creates his collages by examining aesthetic details and experimenting with what flows artistically, he also admits that there are no rules, and nothing and no one is safe from his handiwork. At their core, his cheeky collages are infectious and addictive because they are playful, because they don’t take themselves too seriously, because they drag you into the Wild West of his imagination without any explanation, letting you decide if it’s just a funny image or a metaphor for something deeper and messier and more intrinsically human. Smith turns everything our society holds sacred, from sex to politics to celebrity to fairy tales, on its head, challenging its power and injecting it with irreverence and levity, which feels so refreshing that it’s almost revolutionary.
His collages exist almost exclusively on his Instagram, allowing them to be widely shared, and he adamantly claims the medium has helped him to hone his art form: “I wanted to see what I could get away with without it getting reported.” He goes on to say how inspired he is by the platform itself, and by the comments (both positive and negative) that he receives from all over the world. In person, Smith is just as charming and effusive as his work, waxing poetic about his addiction to Bravo shows and discussing his pieces energetically, with a self deprecating sense of humor that is engaging and endearing. “This one is a self portrait,” he deadpans about the blacked out Snow White collage. “All the animals are like, ‘Honey, are you ok? Is there someone we should call?'”
Part provocateur, part pop artist, part pop culture commentator, his multi-faceted collages defy categorization but guarantee a reaction, although that reaction may run the gamut from laughter to shock to discomfort. During a time when our everyday existence is starting to feel more and more like a bizarro waking nightmare, it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to disappear down the rabbit hole of Smith’s scintillating, titillating mind for a little while and immerse yourself in an alternate reality, a surreal world where nothing makes sense and nothing needs to be taken too seriously, where everything is strange and nothing is sacred, where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
Catch “Inappropriation,” a selection of Johnny Smith’s work at NeueHouse Hollywood (6121 Sunset Boulevard Los Angeles, California 90028) through April.