Ashley Johnson


Artist Statement

I create installations, sculptures and paintings reflecting on social issues and the human condition. Originally from South Africa, I became a Canadian citizen in 2011. In the 90’s I created walk-in situational paintings, often with audio. ‘The Death of Lucas’ was inspired by a mob murder that took place in front of me. The story is on my website.

In 1992 I co-founded Dasart, an artist’s collective dedicated to socialist installations. We suppressed individual identities, mounting several national and international traveling exhibitions. ‘Dasart/Victoria’ installation contrasted 19th Century optimism with the late 20th Century industrial age detritus. We used old colonial maps, coal, concrete, iron and rubber with motors, sound and electricity to create a frenetic environment, contrasted with serene Victorian paintings.

In 1999-2002 ‘Transmigrations’, traveled to Los Angeles and Tijuana, afterwards it also traveled nationally. ‘Transmigrations’ represented a culturally diverse selection of South African artists whose work reflected a non-commercial approach. In a spirit of inclusivity we invited local artists of like-mind to exhibit with us. The exhibition was nominated for Tijuana’s Cultura Premios award. One of my contributions was a kinetic piece called ‘Bullet’. The viewer moves a lever to propel the ‘bullet’ into a ‘torso’ that opens on impact and falls forward. This symbolizes Western Civilization’s impact on Africa.

My last African installation, ‘Cannibal Communicator: The Congo Holocaust’, was a motorized mouthpart sculpture with audio relating the history of the Congo from when HM Stanley explored the Congo River to the excesses of King Leopold who was extracting wild rubber as a tax. A cavernous ribcage supports light-boxes with images taken by the missionaries at the time of the atrocities committed by Leopold’s Cannibal army. The soundtrack uses a confessional aesthetic.

In Toronto I have continued my narrative Primal series that address sexual, religious and cultural attitudes, transgressing to find the animal within. We anthropomorphize animals and are familiar with characters like ‘Peter Rabbit’. These tragicomic paintings reverse this, questioning the nature of reality and individuality. ‘Rue’ is set in a parched land since the environment consumes us as we devour it. The inspiration was a book called Super Freakonomics that proposed substituting cows with kangaroos since they emit less methane. The snake-man’s erection is symbolic of Capitalism’s sexual and unreasoning will to power. ‘Promiguous’ muses on mastectomy and idealism. Australian scientists have been growing human breasts on pigs as replacements. I borrowed from Titian’s “Danae”, referring to the odalisque tradition as an ideal of Western womanhood.

The new Intuit Series paintings explore a hybrid figural abstraction. The titles are verbs implying action as a process of becoming. I have been influenced by David Bohm’s concept of Implicate Order, where everything is interconnected and enfolded within, thus bypassing the particle/wave dilemma. ‘Impregnate’ is a poetic evocation of that process. ‘Exfoliate’ is a gut response to the brutal skinning alive of cats and dogs for their pelts. ‘Cybernate’ references the cybernetics of Gregory Bateson, which addresses the structural patterns in all living systems. ‘Operate’ is a ‘portrait’ of my friend, Diane Victor, a great South African artist, who has polycystic kidney disease and urgently requires a kidney transplant.

The Crimes Against Animality Series are monumental Social Conscience paintings that explore human and animal histories. Ambient soundtracks are created in Garageband using my voice and other sound effects. Ultrasound directional speakers transmit the sound in a narrow 1-foot beam. ‘Xenotransplant’, (2011) references failed experiments to farm interspecies organs. Genetically modified pig organs were grafted onto baboons, who host the organs until transplantation into humans. The soundtrack consists of interior body sounds overlaid with conversation about the experiment and baboons (Quicktime 49min available on my website using Safari). Additional subjects in this series include shark finning, fracking, Aversion Therapy, female genital mutilation, farm animal exploitation, genetically modified food, rhino horn trade and other topics of concern.

My modus operandi is to create a visual timeline telling a story, utilizing key moments, composed within an overall unity that combines realistic passages with abstraction. Caesuras of visual information are stacked using unusual perspectival viewpoints and rhythmic passages to guide the viewer’s eye through the painting. Simultaneously time-based and aesthetically timeless, the paintings try to condense stories into a unitary experience, yet in a beautiful manner.

Social Conscience paintings strive to articulate a message about use/abuse of the environment, animals and humans. I believe that animals have sentience and that our environment exists by virtue of symbiotic relationships. I see these works as art engaging with important social issues of our time, outside the normal aesthetic discourse and perhaps having more in common with Social Practice maneuvers. My content has synchronicities with animal rights groups. I believe that allure is important in any effort to communicate or allow for comprehension of our effect on the environment due to ingrained habits like the use of oil, fur and general consumption.


Artist Talk

View Ashley Johnson's 'Loosening Identity: The Subject in Contemporary Painting'

Loosening Identity: The Subject in Contemporary Painting

This is an artist’s talk about the thought and motivations behind my work. There are challenges facing painters who wish to make a socio-environmental contribution through their art. Art has become a commodity for both Capitalism and Socialism so that it is difficult to communicate through painting. On the one hand, the commercial art-world controls monetary value through auction houses, while universities control theoretical activities and the value of style-isms.

For many viewers some of my paintings present a challenge because they transgress cultural norms and present sexual scenarios that bring to mind aspects like bestiality. Religious and social conditioning has initiated many taboos. Humans see themselves as separate from animals by virtue of consciousness and sentience. They imagine a teleological process leading towards perfection or salvation. Theories of evolution share this myth with faith-based initiatives. My Primal Paintings present bizarre narratives with hybridized animal and human components so as to provoke thought. They are tragicomic, in that they deal with life and death, or existential issues, but with humour.

I am concerned with redressing the balance between animals and humans to build empathy. Consequently I explore the origins of our way of conceptualizing humans and animals. This leads to Cartesian logic and the mechanical metaphor. Descartes famous statement: “I think therefore I am” provokes me to ask: What is consciousness? Do we think and where does the self come from? There are a lot of assumptions underlying our cultural beliefs.

The multi-panel Social Conscience paintings explore human and animal histories. These paintings are graphically realistic narratives, poised as if to communicate. Xenotransplant is exhibited for this talk and references failed experiments to farm transgenic pig organs. These paintings can have soundscapes that are beamed by unidirectional speakers.

The title of this talk, “Loosening Identity”, implies a move away from graphic realism, allowing ‘chaosmosis’ to take place. I became aware that I needed another strategy to approach uncomfortable subject matter. My new Intuit paintings use a hybrid of abstraction and figuration in a free flowing experiment with the goal of creating more metaphoric and mysterious paintings. I hope to apply this way of creating to the forthcoming Social Conscience works.

My paintings explore time and timelessness. I am interested in ‘the pattern that connects’. Symmetry and serial homologies in biology have corollaries in art, which imitates life. I believe that animals have sentience and that the boundaries of individuality need to be loosened so that we can include the environment within our concept of ‘self’.

We see reality in terms of Newtonian constants of space, object and time yet quantum scientists have revealed that reality is both particle and wave. This contradicts our understanding of reality. Our culture has a hard time coping with ambiguity and contradiction.

Perception is manufactured and may lie beyond our comprehension. It may have biological roots. Art may be a biological expression too. Language could be an instinct.

The Bushmen have an alternate view of reality and manage to incorporate their spirit world into experiential reality. They do a Trance Dance to contact the spirit animals and merge identity with them as a healing ritual. They have no problem reconciling ambiguity and contradiction.

I think our culture has to activate a new way of seeing in order to cope with the environmental crises. I believe that we already hold the blueprint within our unconscious but need to become conscious of it.

Ashley Johnson



View Ashley Johnson's Bio
Ashley Johnson is a Canadian artist based in Toronto. Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, he obtained a humanities degree in fine arts (BAFA) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He trained in traditional artistic disciplines of painting and sculpture, with a strong emphasis on drawing. Over the course of his career he has produced work in both disciplines while his installations combine strategies and often include sound.

In 1992 he co-founded DASART, an artists’ collective striving to rethink the connection between humanity and environment. Dasart was active from 1992 until 2002, with many national and international installations in public galleries and museums. These projects dealt with social themes. The “Dasart/Victoria” installation contrasted the optimism of the Industrial Revolution with late 20th century concerns about industrial waste. The exhibitions combined Victorian paintings in the museums’ collections with Dasart works constructed from old colonial maps, industrial debris, garden waste, electricity, motors and sound.

From 1999 to 2002 the Dasart exhibition “Transmigrations: Rituals & Items”, traveled internationally and later nationally. It included cultural production from 13 ethnically diverse South African artists. Certain artists from Toronto (David Hlynsky), LA (Margi Scharff) and Tijuana (Hugo Crosthwaite) were invited to participate. In Tijuana the show was nominated for the Cultura Premios award.

His last project in South Africa titled “Cannibal Communicator: The Congo Holocaust” dealt with the history of rubber from when HM Stanley explored the Congo region to the devastation caused by King Leopold II of Belgium’s rapacious exploitation of the wild rubber resources.

He relocated to Toronto in 2005, continuing his social themes through paintings that challenge cultural taboos. He creates work in several series that are ongoing. The Primal Series are story paintings that address sexual, religious and cultural attitudes, transgressing to find the animal within the human psyche. The Social Conscience series explores the human/animal intersection in monumental paintings with ambient soundtracks. The Intuit Series explores regions that include figuration and abstraction, attempting to expand the narrative.



View Ashley Johnson's CV


  • 1982 Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art, (BAFA); Four-year program combining academic humanities with Fine Art studio courses, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
  • 1983 Higher Diploma in Education (HDE); Specializing in Art and English, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa


  • 2010 Ontario Arts Council Emerging Visual Artists Grant
  • 2008 Headbones Gallery Award
  • 1999 Cultura Premios Award Nomination, Tijuana, Mexico


  • 2016 “Crimes Against Animality”, Headbones Gallery, Vernon BC, TBA
  • 2015 “Loosening Identity”, Lecture and Exhibition, Articsok Gallery, Toronto, Mar 29
  • 2010 Ashley Johnson Primal, Arts on Main, Gallery 111, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 2008 Ashley Johnson Primal, Headbones Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada


  • 2013 “mindFULLnest”, BREAL, Grow-Op, Gladstone Hotel, Toronto
  • 2010 Neopriest, Galerie Art Mur, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • 2009 Neopriest, Definitely Superior Gallery, Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada
  • 2008 Pass the Buddha (Julie Oakes), Galerie Samuel Lallouz, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • 2008 Pass the Buddha (Julie Oakes), The Museum of Northern History, Kirkland Lake, ON,


  • 2015 Inspirazione Divino, Articsok Gallery, Toronto, Mar 19- April 25
  • 2014 Summer Salon, Yumart Gallery, Toronto, July 26 – August 16
  • 2014 Ubuntu, Articsok Gallery, Toronto, May – June
  • 2014 Goat Song, Yumart Gallery, Toronto
  • 2013 Auction: In Aid of Diane Victor, FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg, SA
  • 2013 Salonus Papyrus, Headbones Gallery, Vernon, BC, Dec 7 – Jan 4
  • 2013 Toronto International Art Fair, De Luca Gallery, Toronto
  • 2010 Toronto International Art Fair, Headbones Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2010 Papier 10 Contemporary Art Fair, Headbones Gallery, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • 2009 Paper Salon & Slasher Sale, Headbones Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2009 Toronto International Art Fair, Headbones Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2009 Bridge Art Fair, Headbones Gallery, New York City, USA
  • 2008 Art Now Fair, Headbones Gallery, Room 111, South Seas Hotel, Miami, USA
  • 2008 Toronto International Art Fair, Headbones Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2008 John B Aird Drawing Show, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2007 Lights on Bloor (Dyan Marie), Nuit Blanche, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2007 Toronto International Art Fair, Headbones Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2007 Looking East, Lehmann & Leskiw Fine Art, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2007 Ethnic Convergence, Headbones Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • 2006 New Canadians Without Borders, Varley Art Gallery, Unionville, Ontario, Canada
  • 2005 Miniature show, Gordart Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 2005 Carfax Collection, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 2005 “Porn Again”, Merely Mortal Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 2004 The Cube, Celebration of Nine Years – Carfax, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 2003 The Stuffed Xmas show, Gordart Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 2003 The Cube I – IV, Carfax, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 2003 Gesondaar (Sinner), Aardklop Festival, Potchefstroom, South Africa
  • 2000 Forces of Trauma and Powers of Healing, Unisa Art Gallery, Pretoria, South Africa
  • 1998 Sacred Spaces, Carfax, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1998 Nudes and Nakeds, Carfax, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1998 Kempton Park Art Competition, Kempton Park (Top 100 finalist), South Africa
  • 1998 Art Objects & Meditations, Gallery 111, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1997 Kempton Park Art Competition, Kempton Park (Top 100 finalist), South Africa
  • 1997 Group Spiral Music Production, Carfax, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1997 Euro-virus II-V, Carfax, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1997 A little Big Thing – Erotic Miniatures, Sally Thompson Gallery, Johannesburg, SA
  • 1997 “No 4” Echoes performance production, Old Fort, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1996 Little Show of Drawers, Pretoria University. South Africa
  • 1996 Invitation Show, Keith Alexander Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1993 Momentum Life Awards, Pretoria Art Museum, Pretoria, South Africa
  • 1993 Group exhibition, Carlton Hotel, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1986 Group Exhibition, FUBA Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa


  • 2002 “Transmigrations: Rituals and Items” Pretoria Art Museum, South Africa
  • 2002 “Transmigrations: Rituals and Items” Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein
  • 2002 “Transmigrations: Rituals and Items” Ann Bryant Gallery, East London, SA
  • 2000 “Transmigrations: Rituals and Items” Angels Gate Cultural Center, San Pedro, USA
  • 1999 “Transmigrations: Rituals and Items” University of Baja California, Tijuana, Mexico
  • 1999 “Transmigrations: Rituals and Items” ArtShare Gallery, Los Angeles, USA
  • 1999 “Transmigrations: Rituals and Items” Civic Theatre Gallery, Johannesburg, SA
  • 1998 DASART draws the Line, Gallery 111, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1997 DASART at the Second Johannesburg Biennale, Carfax, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1996 DASART COLONIAL MUTATIONS, Oliewenhuis Art Museum, Bloemfontein, SA
  • 1996 DASART VICTORIA II: Colonial Mutations, Durban Art Gallery, Durban, SA
  • 1995 DASART at Mega Music, First Johannesburg Biennale, South Africa
  • 1995 DASART VICTORIA I, Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa
  • 1995 DASART-Hugging Itself Twice, Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg, SA
  • 1994 DASART, University of South Africa (UNISA) Art Gallery, Pretoria, South Africa
  • 1993 DASART, Natal Technikon, Durban, South Africa
  • 1993 DASART, Institute of Contemporary Art, (ICA) Johannesburg, South Africa
  • 1992 DASART, Jack Heath Gallery, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa


  • 1991 Matthews and Johnson, SA Embassy, Bonn, Germany
  • 1990 Matthews and Johnson, Galerie Binnenland, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  • 1989 Matthews and Johnson, Karen McKerron Gallery, Johannesburg, South Africa


  • 2013 mindFULLnest, Grow-Op, Chris Riddell, Torontoist, December 2013
  • 2009 Neopriest comes to DefSup, Derek Wall, The Argus, September 14
  • 2009 Ashley Johnson Zoomorphic Gestalt, Julie Oakes, Vie Des Arts, #216, Autumn
  • 2003 Subjective Sinners, Hans Pienaar, Spat Retensie, Sept 2
  • 2002 Uitstalling steek die grense van verskeie kulture oor, Bloemnuus Sept 13
  • 2002 Transmigrations, Anno IX, Giu/Ago
  • 2002 Take some time to reflect, Lightstrider, Albertus Van Dijk, Saturday Star, April 6
  • 2002 Oorvleuelende Kultuur Op Uitstalling Te Sien, Volksblad Sept 12
  • 2002 Nuwe Kunsritueel, Transmigration, Andrelise Meiring, Volksblad Sept 23
  • 2002 More than meets the eye, Andrea Jonker-Bryce, Daily Dispatch, Nov 18
  • 2002 Brugbouers, Diek Grobler, Pretoria News, Mei 17
  • 2000 Transmigrations Review, The Aesthetic, April 2000, LA
  • 2000 “Transmigraciones” Expone Crosthwaite en LA Mosaico Frontera March 10
  • 2000 “Exhibit of South African Artists”, Random Lengths, March 31
  • 1999 Arts and Leisure, Financial Mail, Mar 25
  • 1999 ”Arte contemporáneo en la Sala de Arte de la UABC” Arte y cultura August 27
  • 1999 “Rituele en die wêrelddorp” Die Beeld Kalendar March 23
  • 1999 “Espacio multisciplinario” Mosaico Frontera August 27
  • 1999 “Exposición de Arte Contemporáneo sudarfricano en al UABC” Pintura, August 13
  • 1996 Gallery Notes by Marianne Meijer, Mercury, 17 April
  • 1996 “Die kuns laat jou hare rys” by Charles Smith, Volksblad, 5 July
  • 1996 “Dasart Colonial Mutations: EXPRESS takes a peek” Express, 26 June
  • 1996 “Concerns provoked…” by Jeff Chandler, Sunday Tribune 21 April
  • 1996 “We are the New Imperialism” by Ingrid Shevlin, Sunday Tribune, 14 April
  • 1995 “Rich Associations Inform and Test” by Prof. T King, Natal Witness, 24 July
  • 1995 “Raw Art” by Suzy Bell, Daily News, 28 July
  • 1995 “Inside Art” Cover story, The Star, 28 February
  • 1993 “Stimulerende Ervaring”, Beeld, 18 October
  • 1993 “Dasart show at Natal Tech”, Daily News, 16 April
  • 1992 Natal Arts Trust Newsletter, Valerie Leigh editor, Issue 12, December
  • 1991 “Tinten van landschap en ANC” Trouw, Netherlands, 8 August
  • 1990 Time Out, by Michael Coulson, Financial Mail, February