Brandon Johnson is Managing Editor of zingmagazine. Recent curatorial projects include Down the Rabbit Hole at Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. His work has been published in LIT, A Similar But Different Quality, HTML Giant, Best American Poetry Blog, and exhibited at James Fuentes, Gallery Tayuta, and Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Shop. Johnson is author of the book Far From the Madding Crowd: Perspectives on the Life and Work of Dan Asher and is currently at work on a forthcoming title Thee Almighty And Insane: Chicago Gang Business Cards from the 1970s & 1980s.
You're the Managing Editor for one of our favorite art publications, zingmagazine. How did you first connect with the founder, Devon Dikeou, and start working at the magazine?
I first discovered zingmagazine in 2006 through a classmate/friend of mine, Rachel Dalamangas, while an undergrad at University of Denver. I was moving to New York post-graduation for The New School's MFA in Poetry program and she recommended I get involved, which I did. My strong interest in New York School poets led to a growing interest in visual art, and zingmagazine seemed like the perfect place to fan this flame. I got in touch and started off as an intern. I managed to keep my foot in the door with some freelance work until finishing my MFA. Coincidentally, the Managing Editor prior to me moved on and I was offered the position. Right place at the right time, I suppose. I was 23 when I took on the role of Managing Editor, and had to learn on my feet. There were, of course, all the responsibilities related to the operations of the magazine, but during that time Devon was also re-assuming her role as an artist, and so I increasingly became involved with assisting her in producing and exhibiting her own work.
What's a typical day like for you at the office? What's an atypical day like as well?
A typical day at zingmagazine is likely similar to a typical day in any office--sitting in front of a computer, going down the checklist and attempting to push forward the multitude of projects we have going at any given time time. Of course the details change according to the progress of the current issue—editorial, production, distribution—or if Devon has an exhibition or other studio project in the works. If Devon's in town, we'll probably go out to lunch in the neighborhood to strategize. An atypical day would mean going out for an appointment or meeting. Actually, we just had the opportunity to visit the architecture firm Snohetta's new studio on Pine St. That was certainly out of the ordinary, and highly interesting. Another atypical day that comes to mind is when that earthquake happened in Virginia. I felt the shockwaves in our office, a 5-story cast iron building inexplicably vibrating, and the first thing that came to mind was an explosion. Our office isn't far from the WTC site, and although I wasn't here for 9/11 something of that nature is the first thing that comes to mind. I wandered out into the street (which later discovered is exactly what you're not supposed to do during an earthquake) and saw a few others with confused looks on their faces. Soon enough, news of the quake arrived to answer our questions.
Can you tell us a bit about your art background and your move to New York?
Like I said, I came to New York in 2006 to pursue an MFA in Poetry at the New School. Prior to that, I had an AP European History teacher in high school, Mrs Graham, that incorporated a lot of Art History into our agenda, taking us on a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago in support of that. At University of Denver, I did an independent study course with poet Bin Ramke about the crossover between poetry and visual art, learning about Apollinaire, Henri Michaux, and the New York School. Bin encouraged me to cross this line myself which came in the form of Joe Brainard-inspired collages including lines from my own work. Upon graduation, I had been accepted to both The New School in New York and Naropa University in Boulder, CO, and I think this experience with Bin along with encouragement from my thesis advisor Laird Hunt and poetry professor Eleni Sikelianos, really set me on the path to New York. I further explored my interest at the New School, taking a weekend course with Max Blagg, and arranging guest lectures for Vito Acconci and Kenneth Goldsmith. My involvement with zing became my most foundational contact with contemporary art, and my point of reference over the years. I learned as I went, and would have to say it's been quite the education.
You recently published a book, Far From the Madding Crowd, about the life and work of Dan Asher. Can you tell us a bit about Dan and how the book developed?
Dan was one of the first artists I came to know after moving to New York. I met him through zingmagazine, as he was a friend of Devon's and would periodically drop by the office unannounced. Dan had always fascinated me. He was this big scruffy guy who lived a bohemian lifestyle in a city that no longer afforded it, spoke his mind regardless of the professional ramifications, and had a very poetic point of view. Dan was ubiquitous, knew everyone in the art world, but was constantly on the verge of obscurity in a way. But I'd say his life and work speak for itself. He published photos in Punk Magazine in the '70s, ran with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the '80s, shared a studio in Cologne with Yoshitomo Nara, got shows with prestigious galleries, and traveled to the remote corners of the world--Mongolia, Antartica, the Amazon. Dan passed away in 2010 and was fortunate enough to have people who cared for him, putting in the time and effort to preserve his work. When editorial for zing #24 rolled around, I was looking for a project of my own to embark upon, and between my background in research, personal interest in the subject, and the support of zingmagazine/Devon Dikeou, a book on Dan Asher seemed to be right in my wheelhouse. There was a general lack of information about him on record and Martos Gallery had begun to re-introduce his work to the world at art fairs, so the timing seemed right too. Like a good historian, I sought out a variety of perspectives in attempt to gain a consensus image of this person's life. I talked to people from all walks‚ from art dealers such as Gavin Brown and Paula Cooper, curators like Matthew Higgs, the writers Walter Robinson and Glenn O'Brien, artists he had befriended or encountered including Anicka Yi, Lizzi Bougatsos, Coleen Fitzgibbon & Tom Otterness, to personal friends, musicians, and even his dentist. The idea was to get as full a portrait of Dan as possible‚ both as artist and human being, because in his case these two things were inseparable. I got to dig through his archives, pulling art and photos to document for use in the book. I wanted his life to be put on record, for his artwork to be seen by a bigger audience, and for the conversation to continue. It felt like a great responsibility, but I knew it was a 100 percent worthwhile endeavor. I was very pleased with how the book came together in the end. I hope Dan would have felt the same.
Do you have any favorite gallery/galleries that you return to because of their consistently strong program?
There's too many to name, but off the top of my head some of my favorites in New York at the moment are James Fuentes, Regina Rex, Kerry Schuss, Eli Ping Frances Perkins, P!, 47 Canal, Alden Projects, Karma, Andrew Edlin, INVISIBLE-EXPORTS, Martos Gallery, Shoot The Lobster, Feuer/Mesler, James Cohan, and non-profits like White Columns and The Drawing Center.
Are you working on any new projects that you can share with us?
Yes! I'm just going into production with my next book, Thee Almighty & Insane: Chicago Gang Business Cards from the 1970s and 1980s, which will feature a selection of aforementioned "compliment cards" from my personal collection. These cards were unique to Chicago and this time period. I'm a big fan of the aesthetic sensibility—the “Old English” fonts, hand-drawn graphics, and inventive names. I'm originally from the Chicagoland area and discovered this phenomenon through my Dad who had an old compliment card in a cigar box of his belongings in the attic. Apparently his friend was a member of one of the gangs. I later found a couple sources from which to acquire more original cards and built my collection from there. I feel like the book will be of strong interest to the world I operate in—the crossroads of contemporary art, publishing, and print ephemera. Keep an eye out for that in the next couple months.
Lastly, we're always curious to know what's inspiring the creative people we're talking with. Can you share anything you are currently obsessed with?
Good question. I'm currently preoccupied with growing things, specifically my cactuses. I'm a newbie in this realm, but finding ways to allow these plants to flourish in a less than hospitable climate is gratifying. Nature in general is an endless source of fascination, and the original gangster when it comes to creation. Being in natural settings is when I feel most alive, and on an evolutionary level this makes a lot of sense.