Johanna Goodman’s Catalogue of Imaginary Beings

Illustrator Johanna Goodman has created over 300 images of people in fantastical outfits for her self-initiated project, Imaginary Beings – a creative experiment that has led to a fellowship grant, a commission from the New York City Metropolitan Transport Authority and her work appearing on skate decks and West Elm homeware…

Johanna Goodman has been creating collages and portraits since the 1990s. Her illustrations have appeared in Time, Rolling Stone and Le Monde as well as the New Yorker.

In 2015, she began a personal experiment, creating images of people ‘dressed’ in unusual outfits. She has since created around 300 collages of people wearing cactus plants, plumes of smoke, logs and scraps of fabric – a collection she refers to as a Catalogue of Imaginary Beings.

It’s a simple concept but one that has resulted in hundreds of playful images. Goodman’s ‘Beings’ appear almost like classic statues or monuments. Photographs of every day items – from woollen blankets to plastic bags – are cut out and arranged to create surreal head-to-toe outfits. Props, facial expressions, unusual proportions and backgrounds add another layer of humour – whether it’s a face from a marble bust clutching a camera phone or someone holding a Starbucks Frappuccino cup while ‘wearing’ the moon. 

Explaining how the project got started, Goodman says: “I had been an illustrator for many years specialising in portraits (drawn and painted) and had recently started exploring and working with collage. These monumental Beings seemed like a natural outgrowth of those two disciplines…. I’m not sure why they took this particular form of monumental figures of voluminous and cumbersome proportions but I’m glad they did!”

Last year, New York City’s Metropolitan Transport Authority asked Goodman to create a set of Imaginary Beings inspired by the subway. She created four ‘Subway Muses’ – figures wearing garments made out of MTA maps and photographs of station interiors – and a poster featuring her designs was installed at stations across the city.

“[New York’s MTA] have a robust art department …  commissioning artists to make art for all over the transit system. It’s a treasure of New York,” explains Goodman. “The Subway Muses poster was installed in 2017 in subway stations all over New York … and many are still on display. It’s a real kick to get out of a train and look up to see my work looking back at me!”

Goodman’s collages are created using a mix of her own photographs and images sourced from the public domain archives of libraries.

Sometimes I will have a loose concept or theme when I begin my search for imagery, other times I am reacting to images I happen to come across and then I just play around and see what happens. I find it incredibly liberating to be open to any possibilities – especially the ones I never would have thought of in a vacuum,” she says.

She regularly posts new Beings on Instagram and has just received an Artist Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts to develop the project.

Goodman started making collages with the aim of creating a large-scale book and accompanying exhibition – a concept inspired by naturalist John James Audubon’s illustrated compendium Birds of America. She is still working on a book but the project has since taken her in unexpected directions. Her Beings have appeared on Habitat skate decks as well as ceramic plates, silk pillows, vases and candles.

She has also been commissioned to create Beings for magazines in the US, Italy and Canada and has set up an online store selling archive prints. Her latest commission is a Being covered in eyes for Persisticon – a US organisation set up with the aim of getting feminists elected in the US.

“I love the unknown, both of the process of making these works as well as the unknown of where they’ll end up next,” she says.

See more of Goodman’s Beings at johannagoodman.com

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