Rose Johnson's Memorial at Icehouse a Somber Send-Off

For all the talk of Rose Johnson's good-bye fete at the Icehouse being a celebration rather than a memorial, the emotional climate at Saturday night's send-off was more somber than sunny, as hundreds of people gathered to honor the former Phoenix artist. The Icehouse proved to be a particularly fitting location for Johnson's memorial, since she had mounted a number of important performance pieces there during the late 1980's and 90's. (See a slide show from the event as well as this week's cover story on Rose Johnson's life and art).

Longtime friends Susan Sutton, Johnson's early art rep in town, and Kim Blake organized an exhibition of her canvases for the occasion, which had been loaned for display by Johnson collectors throughout Arizona. Entering the gallery space, one encountered a line of black pedestals tied together by a path of fresh rose petals, one of which bore a baby sculpture from Johnson's most well-known performance, inspired by the artist's work with babies born addicted to drugs. Flanking either side of the doorway were two shrine-like tables bearing cherished photos of Johnson, candles and bouquets of roses.

In other Icehouse rooms, installation works featuring objects close related to the artist were displayed in moody settings, including a painting depicting Johnson as a veiled bride with floating fetus, as well as a brush-clutching artist, and another baby sculpture. A room across from the gallery, filled with the soft strains of classical music, had been set up for participants to create recuerdos, or little remembrances, to the artist, who died from methanol-tainted alcohol in Bali on June 1. In the Icehouse courtyard, an old, rusting refrigerator was the backdrop for a number of Rose Johnson-designed kitchen magnets, testament to the longevity and universality of her graphic arts work.

In the Icehouse's formidable Cathedral Room, which is open to the sky, Sonoma artist Katherine Zsolt, who lived, worked and showed in Phoenix during the 90's, had filled the large concrete basin in the room's center with black ink. Unfortunately, the room was so dark that the fact the pool was full of ink escaped many viewers, though subtle reflections of Icehouse walls thrown on its surface deepened the emotional darkness of the atmosphere. 

The centerpiece of the memorial was a performance piece conceived by artist Suzanne Falk, who led a bevy of sparkly, body-painted women dressed as mermaids in a procession around the pool, while strange dolphin-like sounds were electronically emitted by strolling musicians. Occasionally, an anguished shriek was let loose, as the mermaids, bearing offerings to Rose Johnson's spirit, slowly plied their way through the quiet crowd. The ritual performance ended with chanting by a Buddhist monk, around which the mermaids had gathered.

Rose Johnson's father, Eric Johnson, who lives in Ohio, as well as her brother Chris, attended the function. The elder Johnson reported that the family is still awaiting release of toxicology and pathology results from a Balinese forensic laboratory and that he personally oversaw the shipping of 65 of Rose Johnson's last paintings to the U.S. from Bali.