"Future Ghost" by L.A. Johnson (2018)

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You might have already seen artist L.A. Johnson’s illustrations without knowing it. She’s an art director and illustrator at NPR whose work appears on NPR’s website and in posters around D.C. Now, Johnson is presenting her first solo art show through NEONCAT, the pop-up gallery she owns and curates. In Future Ghosts, she gives us 24 new paintings and illustrations that touch on themes like exploration, love, death, and fear.

Many of the paintings feature naked, multicolored women whose bodies curve and stretch around each other. The most distinct of these is “We Do This Together,” a bright collage of women who fit together like angled puzzle pieces. In most of Johnson’s multi-person paintings, the women either don’t look at the viewer at all or do so disinterestedly, as if they were staring right through you. Yet in “We Do This Together,” a woman at the center holds the viewer’s gaze with her direct stare and her dark, expressive eyebrows. It’s the only painting where you really feel seen—and maybe judged?—by one of the women. It’s a strong statement, and a little bit of an unsettling one, too.

Some of the paintings zero in on one woman in particular. A series of pieces called “Long Distance” show a naked woman lying around in various poses while talking on the telephone. She could be talking to anyone, but the range of emotions (and let’s be real, the nudity) suggest she’s on the phone with a long-distance friend who’s more than a friend.

“Long Distance” captures the mixture of excitement, frustration, and ambivalence a person can feel when the person she likes is far away. Johnson’s playful style makes “Long Distance” feel like illustrations in a book that looks like it’s for kids but is actually for adults. Like so many of the pieces in Johnson’s show, it has the casual intimacy of zine art, which also often merges playful styles familiar to children’s media with adult themes.

The exhibit’s titular painting is “Future Ghost,” in which we meet a young woman walking through the woods at night with sensible clothing and her blonde hair pulled back, like a modern-day Nancy Drew (or Betty Cooper from Riverdale). She carries a shovel in one hand and a flashlight in the other as ghosts look out at her from behind trees. It’s spooky, suggestive of the ghosts that have yet to haunt her, and the mistakes she has yet to make. Or maybe the title, “Future Ghost,” simply refers to her because she’s still alive—she’s not yet a ghost like the phantoms watching her.

Right next to “Future Ghost” is a painting titled “Past Ghost” where we see the same young woman using her flashlight and shovel to bury a cat. The feline’s ghost floats up from its body as behind it, other ghosts peek out at the woman from the windows of a house and the trees surrounding it. Like “Long Distance,” the two “Ghost” pieces again have a children’s-book-illustration vibe. The topics of ghosts and pets are familiar ones from childhood, but Johnson uses them to explore death in a more adult manner.

Johnson will wrap up the show on Saturday, Sept. 22 with an artist talk and a closing party starting at 6 p.m. The event is free to attend, and on her personal website, she promises “booze and snaxx, interactive art projects you can join in on, and surprises!” If you don’t like surprises, or just want to see the show on your own before then, you can contact Lost Origins Gallery to set up a viewing appointment. 3110 Mt Pleasant St. NW. Free. info@lostorigins.com. (202) 409-6211. lostorigins.gallery.