Geoff Johnson: Behind the Door

Joel Damon, co-founder and curator of Project Project, was my first mentor when I entered the art scene in 2011 as an intern in the Bemis Underground. I knew nothing about installing an exhibition or how an arts organization worked, but that didn’t matter to Joel. I was immediately one of the pack.

Opening night of Geoff Johnson's Behind the Door at Project Project

This all-encompassing, everyone-is-welcome attitude is what permeates the walls of Project Project, a small, narrow exhibition space on Omaha’s Vinton Street. Run by Damon and Omaha-artist and curator Josh Powell, there hasn’t been a night I’ve attended an opening that the space wasn’t packed. And Friday’s opening of photographer Geoff Johnson’s Behind the Door was no exception. People of every walk of life lined the walls - college students, parents, kids. Professors, hipsters and grandfatherly-types. I remember, a couple months back, parking farther up the street for an opening. You could have heard a pin drop at the neighboring Gallery 72, but the walls were bouncing at Project Project.

Having missed my window to write a piece on Dan Crane’s Real Business, a show curated by Damon and Powell in December -- a pop-up, American Apparel-esque store of art that could only come from Dan Crane (shop his store online) -- I immediately knew I needed to do a write-up of Johnson’s show. I typically like to see a show without a lot of background information, so I have the opportunity to interpret the work for myself, but an article in the GO section of the Omaha World Herald caught my attention. So to be fair, I knew that Johnson had photographed his mother’s real home after her passing in 2013. I knew she was a compulsive hoarder -- an illness I have never experienced first-hand nor have I given into its supposed “entertainment” value via TLC’s Buried Alive. I knew that Johnson had edited his son and niece into the images. With that being said, I went in with an expectation that the work would be a little unsettling, at least for me.

The first image you see upon entrance to Project Project is that of an entry way -- typically the point of a homeowner’s proud first impression, but in this case crowded by belongings and debris -- with a small blonde-haired boy peeking out through a front door. As written in the Omaha World Herald the boy “cracks open the front door of the house, careful, as Johnson had once been, not to let anyone from the outside world see what it looks like inside his own.” It’s symbolic in the sense that as an adult Johnson is opening that door and allowing us to experience his life as a child through his work. The show consisted of ten large-scale photographs, each of a different room in Johnson’s mother’s home -- filled with belongings and trash, filthy and in various states of decay -- and amidst it all, a child trying to play or eat or do any other every day activity we so thoughtlessly do as a child.

The photographs left me with mixed emotions. One part of me fascinated by this glance into the life of someone with this particular mental illness. Another part of me feeling sympathetic for children who grow up in these conditions. And yet another part of me documenting every object and piece of debris, as if each photograph were a collage I could dismantle and somehow make sense of where it all began with a single piece of trash.

When viewing Behind the Door, it took some effort to ignore the side of me that wanted to gawk like a nosy next-door neighbor and judge Johnson’s mother for her illness. I don’t think that is what Johnson intended. Instead, I think his intention is for us as viewers to remove ourselves from the third-person point of view and, instead, try to experience it from a child’s first-person point of view -- with innocence and without judgement.

I’ve always believed that the best way to connect people with art is to expose them to work that educates or, in the least, tells a story. In this case, Johnson’s Behind the Door is important. My only criticism of the show is that the communal atmosphere of Project Project didn't play into an ideal viewing of the work. A better experience, for me, would be to stand alone in the center of the room and get a rotating 270 degree view of the installation, creating a possibly truer sense of living in Johnson’s childhood home.

Behind the Door is on display at Project Project (1818 Vinton Street) through January 17 (by appointment only -- email projectprojectomaha@gmail.com). Images are also available for viewing at www.geoffjohnson.com.