Artist M. Scott Johnson is an affable dude. Within seconds of introducing ourselves on the phone, he's already calling us "brother" and laughing about getting reacclimated to Detroit.
"It's funny, they used to clown me — 'Oh, you're so goddamn country!'" the Inkster native says. "But now I realize that's actually a benefit to me. The visual arts have been classist for far too long!"
Johnson left Detroit in the late '80s, pursuing art at Western Michigan University, followed by stints in Zimbabwe and New York, which he now calls home. His departure came just as the futuristic sounds of Detroit techno began to take root, but his love of the music stuck with him through his life. In fact, his latest show of sculptural work is dedicated in part to Detroit techno. A semi-retrospective, Shadow Matter: The Rhythm of Structure—Afro Futurism to Afro Surrealism, collects works from 1998 to 2014. It's Johnson's first in Detroit.
On the one hand, his homage to techno functions on a surface level, with abstract busts dedicated to DJs Derrick May and Anthony Shakir. But the connection between techno and his work extends well beyond that.
Like many techno tracks — say, Cybotron's "Cosmic Cars" — escapism factors heavily into Johnson's art. A milestone work is a reference to High John the Conqueror, a folkloric hero from the slave era. The prince-turned-slave was a trickster blessed with mystical powers.
"He would transmute into a bird," Johnson says. "The enslaved Africans would call on his name, and he would take them from the fields and they would fly away with him to a parallel universe where everything was beautiful and calm, and that allowed them to be able to coexist in two realities simultaneously."
Johnson's sculpture is an abstract form, which seems to contain both human and birdlike qualities. But like much of his other work, it's also a multi-faceted piece, which transforms from organic shapes to geometric planes, and shifts from one texture to another.
That's another reference to techno. "What techno music allowed me to do was to help me to understand the process of layering," he says. "I would spend hours watching Shakir as he would develop his tracks. He had the reel-to-reel setup. I watched him, and when you're making any work of art, you're starting off with an initial statement, and then you want to layer. The same thing happens visually."
There's also the very visceral and repetitive aspect of chiseling sculptures. A video on loop in the back shows Johnson at work, banging hammer to chisel, creating a repetitive clang-clang-clang rhythm. It's a skill he learned in Zimbabwe under the tutelage of master sculptor Nicholas Mukomberanwa. "They called him the 'black Picasso,'" Johnson says. "I didn't understand it, but I knew it meant something important."
Johnson says that after his undergrad, he knew he didn't want to study sculpture in an academic way. Instead, he says he yearned for more of an age-old master-student relationship. "It marked the student as an acolyte of that teacher. It's almost a familiar relationship," he says. "I was like, 'Dude, I want that.'"
There is perhaps no better place on Earth to learn the ancient art of stone carving than Zimbabwe, thanks to a geography rich in precious minerals. In fact, the name "Zimbabwe" means "house of stone."
"You're talking about a whole culture that's based on this medium," Johnson says. "In Zimbabwe, the stone sculptors are like the basketball players here — they're, like, the richest people outside of the politicians."
He approached Mukomberanwa at a one-man show in New York City about an apprenticeship. "He said, 'I'll let you come and work on my farm if you have the courage to get the ticket and get there,'" Johnson says. Next came a challenge for Johnson to create a sculpture in two weeks. If Mukomberanwa liked it, he would let Johnson stay with him.
Johnson's apprenticeship started soon after.
Like his education on techno at the music institute, it was a lesson that stuck with Johnson. "When I went to Zimbabwe, I was not only taught the skills, but the spirituality behind the skill," he says. "It was so much more than just another medium. It became a way of life."
Shadow Matter is on display at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History; 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit, 313-494-5800; thewright.org; tickets $5-$8. Show runs through Aug. 30.