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"Until the Kingdom Comes," an exhibit by Norwegian artist Simen Johan, opened Saturday at the David Winton Bell Gallery in the List Art Center. Showcasing 17 photographs and two sculptures, the exhibit features images of animals in unnatural or primordial circumstances. The artist, who began work on this project in 2006, used a combination of analog photography and digital alteration to achieve the final effect.

A reception moderated by Jo-Ann Conklin, curator of the exhibit and director of the Bell Gallery, was held Friday before the official opening featuring an artist's talk by Johan. 

Conklin told the audience she was drawn to Johan's work after the artist applied for a Howard Foundation Grant, a fellowship program administered through the University that helps fund artists' pursuits. For the first time, the foundation sought photography as a specialty. Conklin, a juror for the program, saw Johan's new project and was impressed, she said.

"We had a slot fall out in our exhibition schedule and were able to put his show in," Conklin told The Herald.

The images incorporate animals juxtaposed against environments not typical of their natural habitats or altered into thought-provoking poses. A particularly striking image is an entangled web of snakes set against a series of rocks. Johan photographed the snakes one by one and created a digitally-composed image that layered the snakes on top of one another, an intestinal effect, he explained.

"The animals exist between reality, fiction, fantasy and nightmare," Conklin said to the audience. "There's a range in the attitudes of the photographs between things that seem quite sweet and innocent and other more serious, darker images."

The dual nature of the photographs is also reflected in the title of the exhibit. Though "Until the Kingdom Comes" hints at the animal kingdom, the name has more to do with the contrast behind the kingdom in a religious and secular sense. 

"The kingdom is a more general term for that which we think will one day come and save us from the current state," Johan said. "It's a hopeful, dreamy title, but there's also an eerie notion behind it that it's not ever going to come true."

Johan found the animals in a variety of different settings, including zoos, farms and independent sanctuaries. He described the photography process as very intuitive because he could not plan for how his subjects would pose.

Johan began his journey as an artist in the early 1990s at 19, when he moved to New York City to pursue film at the School of Visual Arts but then switched to photography. Since that time, he has produced numerous exhibits, the foremost being "Evidence of Things Unseen," which used similar techniques to "Until the Kingdom Comes," but with children as the subject. 

"I chose to photograph children before and now animals because of the primal, instinctive nature of them," Johan said. "Adults have this, too, but they choose to hide it."

Johan said his process is different from that of most photographers. While most photographers may seek to capture a moment on camera, Johan looks to create his own moment, and therefore he considers himself more of an artist.

"I don't really think of myself as a photographer," Johan told The Herald. "I do take pictures, but the main thing I'm doing is spending a lot of time on the computer - problem solving and planning the images."

"I feel like it's really interesting how his photos use more of a filmmaking technique than photography or print," said Paul Bertolino, a Rhode Island School of Design student who attended the reception. "There's a certain fabrication to them that is intriguing."

"Until the Kingdom Comes" is running in the Bell Gallery until Feb. 17 and is free to the public.


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