Helen Johnson / Australia b.1979 / Women’s work (1902) 2017 / Synthetic polymer paint on unstretched canvas / 228 x 182cm / Commissioned 2016 with funds from the Future Collective through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Helen Johnson
Women’s work (1902) 2017

Not Currently on Display

Melbourne-based artist and writer Helen Johnson’s hanging, large-scale, double-sided paintings are a response to two important works by female artists in the Australian collection: AME Bale’s Leisure moments 1902, and Vida Lahey’s Monday morning 1912. Both paintings from the 1900s depict women in interior spaces. Johnson’s contemporary works position them in the context of the political and social framework of the years they were painted.

Bale’s painting is thought to represent the artist with fellow students in her studio on a break. Johnson has also positioned herself and her two studio assistants, Georgina Sambell and Nell Pearson, as the three female figures in her own painting, bringing the studio context into the present day.

The Brisbane General Strike of 1912, the same year Lahey’s Monday morning was painted, was a defining episode in the history of workers’ rights in Queensland. During her research, Johnson was fascinated by this significant event and its relation to Lahey’s depiction of domestic labour.

On the reverse of her paintings, Johnson has incorporated various historical elements, including a sketch of a second-class diploma that Bale received in 1907 in the ‘First Australian Exhibition of Women’s Work’, and an account of the workers’ strike in which Emma Miller, a woman in her 70s, stabbed the police commissioner’s horse in the rump with her hat pin.

Helen Johnson is a Melbourne-based artist, curator and author. Her thoughtful, politically and socially engaged practice has featured in several solo and group exhibitions in Australia, and more recently, internationally.

Johnson holds a PhD from Monash University, Melbourne, for which she was awarded the Mollie Holman Award for Doctoral Thesis Excellence. Johnson’s work comments on contemporary society, exploring themes of colonisation, politics and social history through narrative and a range of painting styles.

She also has a curatorial and critical writing practice and is the author of Painting is a critical form, a monograph on Juan Davila and Martin Kippenberger, published by 3-Ply and Minerva in 2015.

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