Helen Johnson

Bad Debt


In Tate Modern

Level 3: A Year in Art: Australia 1992

Helen Johnson born 1979
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 3960 × 3250 mm
Tate and the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, with support from the Qantas Foundation 2015, purchased 2018


Bad Debt 2016 is a large unstretched acrylic painting on canvas that depicts layers of overlapping disparate images. These include a bedroom interior with a smashed window; animals that are non-indigenous to the artist’s native Australia, such as foxes and rabbits; people dressed as a cat, a horse and a man; and representations of the smallpox virus. Foxes, rabbits and smallpox are notorious examples of the species and diseases introduced to Australia by colonists. The painting’s composition is based on the layout of Australia’s capital, Canberra, which is one of the few capital cities worldwide designed from scratch. In 1911 the Chicago-based architect Walter Burley Griffin won the international competition to design the city. Despite his idealist approach, his plan ignored the original inhabitants of the land. The imagery in Johnson’s painting is sourced from the internet and painted in close detail, alongside images of weeds that were either sourced online from the Agriculture Victoria website or based on photographs taken by the artist. On the wall of the bedroom hang two pictures; one is derived from a print by the Australian painter and printmaker Fred Williams (1927–1982), and the other is from an image of a man beating a woman that was published in an issue of the Police Gazette, a Melbourne publication from the mid- to late nineteenth century. The background image of people dressed as animals is adapted from a book about early circuses in Australia.

This work is one of six new paintings co-commissioned by the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London and Artspace, Sydney for Johnson’s solo exhibition at the ICA from February to April 2017, and touring to Chapter, Cardiff and Artspace, Sydney. Two other paintings from the group are also in Tate’s collection: Seat of Power 2016 (Tate X66564) and A Feast of Reason and a Flow of Soul 2016 (Tate X66768). Painted on unstretched canvases, these works are displayed on tubular steel structures that allow them to be hung either at a distance of about 30–40 centimetres from the wall or suspended in the middle of the gallery.

Johnson’s work often addresses Australia’s colonial history and its ongoing impact on the country’s political and social realities. The complex colonial relationship between Australia and Britain and the ongoing tension between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are fundamental concerns of the three paintings in Tate’s collection. Australia is pictured as a country with an unstable and conflicted identity and a place where the constructed nature of history is more readily recognisable. Regarding the three paintings together, Johnson has said:

They inhabit three different phases in Australia’s colonial history: A Feast of Reason and a Flow of Soul deals with the corruption and solipsism of the early colonists, focusing on the Port Phillip region (now Victoria) as land was stolen and sold off; the subject of Seat of Power is the sycophantic relation of the Australian government to that of the UK, embodied in the fetishistic production of a replica of the Speaker’s Chair at Westminster that was gifted to the Australian parliament in 1926; and Bad Debt depicts introduced species that are today classed as pests and noxious weeds in south-eastern Australia, overlaid with a wireframe image of a bedroom that has been broken into and riffled through, theft in a register that we are more readily able to identify.
(In email correspondence with Tate curator Sook-Kyung Lee, 4 February 2017.)

Rather than being overtly political or literal, however, Johnson’s work conveys a reflection of history and reality through the language of painting. She is acutely aware of the trajectory of recent debates around painting, from a conservative and outdated form of expression to a medium relevant to contemporary experience. These concerns resulted in her extending her PhD thesis into a book entitled Painting is a Critical Form, published in 2015. Traversing between figuration and abstraction and between image and text, her paintings connect disparate imagery with complex history and politics. The juxtaposition of historical and contemporary signifiers is typical of Johnson’s practice, adapted from historical and art historical material ranging from popular magazines and illustrated publications to internet photographs and Renaissance paintings. In her work some images are given precedence while others are made barely legible, implying that representation is always partial and subjective, rather than complete or absolute.

Further reading
Helen Johnson, Painting Is a Critical Form, Melbourne 2015.
Jennifer Higgie, ‘History Pictures: Colonialism and Contemporary Australia in the Paintings of Helen Johnson’, Frieze, no.184, January–February 2017, published online 24 December 2016, https://frieze.com/article/history-pictures-0, accessed 31 January 2017.

Sook-Kyung Lee
January 2017

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Display caption

Bad Debt focuses on introduced animal species, diseases and ecological disturbance. Images of foxes and rabbits overlay drawings of circus performers dressed as a cat and a horse. These are species that have caused widespread damage to Australia’s unique biodiversity. Smallpox cells are too small to be visible, yet their introduction by the British from 1788 also had a devastating effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Bad Debt’s composition is based on the layout of Australia’s capital city, Canberra. When the city was built, the planners ignored the concerns of the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples whose land it stands on. 

Gallery label, August 2021

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