CAM Raleigh
409 W. Martin St., Raleigh
Through May 5

My frustration with photography is that it shows only the surface,” Sarah Anne Johnson is quoted as saying in the catalogue for Wonderland, a dozen years’ worth of work at CAM Raleigh. Instead, she tells the truth with visual lies, polluting documentary with a filigree of fantasy and aggressive subjectivity.

Photographs of people in natural landscapes hang alongside photos of clay figurines in imagined scenes. Pristine-looking Arctic panoramas are over-painted with black clouds of fireworks that shimmer like oil spills. Background patterns leak into foregrounds, manifesting buried traumas. The through-line is how Johnson insists on rendering the hidden on the surfacethe faultlines that portraiture, nature photography and photo albums can conceal.

Johnson, a Winnipeg native with a master’s in photography from Yale, is still in her 30s. This mid-career retrospective does not suggest that guest curator Steven Matijcio expects her career to be short, but rather, that she has produced a robust, organic body of work in an unusually short time. Eight series fill the upper and lower galleries at CAM, including masses of small photos, large chromogenic prints altered with paint, ink and other interventions, and dioramic dollhousesplus, one impressively huge installation.

“Fireworks” (2012) lurks behind a towering partition in the back of the gallery. A tornadic mass of dark, billowing ridges and bulbous, sea-urchin-shaped lights hangs above a model schooner. With the tapered tip of the funnel cloud just above the sails, it isn’t clear if the ship is the source or the subject of this beautiful catastrophe. It suggests a scene at once celebratory and apocalyptic: a good characterization of Wonderland overall.

Beyond probing the artifice of image and memory, the bodies of work also share concerns of environmental degradation, especially in “Arctic Wonderland” (2011), where Ansel Adams-like photos of the Arctic are altered, often in ways suggesting candy-colored pollution, to disrupt the familiar superficiality of such images. Fireworks, pom-poms and confettimotifs that recur throughout the showare added to photographed scenes and figures in the series, keeping with a mordant theme about laughing ourselves toward oblivion.

This theme took root in “Tree Planting” (2005), a loose grid of photos covering the freestanding partition in front of “Fireworks.” The photos were taken while Johnson spent three years planting trees in Northern Manitoba, a rite of passage for young conservationist Canadians. The shots of her co-workers, some posed and some candid, are prosaic, and a bit melancholytwo men in hardhats sit on a log, looking bored; another in a car turns in on himself with a thwarted expression. But Johnson made the world her dollhouse before she starting turning dollhouses into worlds, and the real scenes are mixed with staged ones of clay figurines in dioramas.

The figurines are untouched by the prosaic. They talk the night away under vaulting stars, pose for group pictures on bleachers of logs, kiss while holding beer bottles. With their romantic concepts and picture-book lighting, these scenes seem to represent how an idealistic young person might imagine such a trip, or how they remember it later. The first buried thing that Johnson excavated was her own naïveté.

You can meet Johnson’s colony of small clay characters in person, as they’re all arrayed on daises in the center of the gallery. They’re the first thing you’re drawn to, and it’s enjoyable to spot them later in the photos, now in context. A nude standing on a pedestal with her arms raised in what looks like distress is found happily treading water, oblivious to the beer cans strewn on the aquarium floor.

On another agricultural rehab mission, Johnson produced the similar “The Galapagos Project” (2007). In stark portraits, workers carry lengths of hose; in dreamy dioramas, swimmers meet seals in calendar-page oceans. But the figures also start to embark on more elaborate, dramatic scenes. One looks understandably concerned with birds lining her arms. Two others wrestle with gleeful faces. Three more are swimming with sharks. And in Johnson’s first dollhouse, a warmly lit two-story cabin, small windows capture private momentsa figure pensively washing dishes in a kitchen, another lifting off her shirt in a bedroom. This initiates a growing voyeuristic thread in the work.

Downstairs, past a wall-sized lenticular forest that gives an immersive shimmer of movement as you pass by, an even more elaborate dollhouse waits, its roof in flames, its topsy-turvy windows showing miniature scenes of squalor, loneliness and latent emergency.

It’s the centerpiece of the extremely personal “House on Fire” (2009), one of my favorite series in the show, where Johnson turns her subterranean probe away from nature, into her own family history. Its subject is the incredible but true story of Johnson’s grandmother, who, seeking treatment for post-partum depression in the 1950s, became a victim of traumatic CIA experiments in shock therapy, sleep control and LSD treatments.

Johnson shows the fallout by inscribing traceries of pattern and painting surrealist modifications on family photos. Playful clay figures give way to solemn bronzes of an elderly woman, like twisted fertility icons. One has a hamster’s head; another is either eating or vomiting a branch. Johnson’s penchant for replicating images in different forms accelerates; a woman with a white box covering her head appears in a bronze, a doctored photograph and a video, “Dancing with the Doctor” (2010). If environmental and social illusions were laid bare in the earlier series, emotional and psychological ones are exhumed here.

In the last and most recent body of work, “Wonderlust” (2013), the voyeuristic quality of Johnson’s work becomes explicit (the term is carefully chosen). Johnson photographed people having sex in their bedrooms, then used glitter, paint, gold leaf, burning, scratching and gouging to make sexual energies visible in the frozen forms. Couples entwine with their bodies spattered with stars. A tantric energy dome hovers over a masturbating woman. Scratched white shards explode in a nimbus around thrusting buttocks. The clown is a recurring image, with red noses and lacy ruffs painted on some subjects, and a terrifying white clown head imposed on a woman straddling a man who has been reduced to a marbled silhouette.

Though the photos are ominous at times, they are also funnier, freer and more ecstatic than anything else in the show. They trade mysterious depth for aesthetic punch, but the surface vibrancy makes for a rude, energizing grace note. It leaves the artist pointed into uncharted territory, and us in anticipation of seeing where she will take her perennial themes by the time of her next retrospective.

This article appeared in print with the headline “party at the end of the world.”