Condom portrait of Ex-Pope Benedict goes on display in Third Ward

Louis Weisberg, Staff writer

A larger-than-life portrait of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, created using some 17,000 multi-colored condoms, sounds suspiciously like a gimmick.

But in the hands of Niki Johnson, a Shorewood artist of growing reputation, the piece that she titled “Eggs Benedict” is a commanding and thought-provoking work of serious art, according to critics. Johnson’s combination of concept and skill has generated attention worldwide. Media from the United States to the United Kingdom, from London to Ghana have written about the piece.

On April 14, CNN aired a feature about Johnson and the work, which is on display at the Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., Milwaukee. A portion of the proceeds from the sale will be donated to AIDS groups.

Philanthropist Joseph Pabst has bid $20,000 for the piece, which is encased in Plexiglass and displayed in a gold frame with an attached base. The piece measures 83 x 60 x 12 inches overall.

Johnson says the piece was conceived in response to statements Benedict made during a 2009 papal trip to Africa. The pontiff warned believers on the continent, where HIV/AIDS has wreaked the most devastation, that the use of prophylactics contributes to spreading the disease rather than preventing it.

“I thought he was being irresponsible to public health,” Johnson says.

A 35-year-old instructor at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design with a master’s degree in fine arts from UW-Madison, Johnson says “Eggs Benedict” is part of a long artistic tradition of “staging intervention.”

“I think the reason it went viral is because … it’s engaging a subject matter that many people think needs to be talked about,” she says.

Johnson says emphatically that it’s not her role as an artist to explain the work, but rather to let others react to it however it moves them. “The piece needs to function on its own,” she says. “I didn’t make it to make a giant platform. My job is to instigate dialogue taking this conversation forward.”

In addition to falling within the artistic tradition of stimulating debate, “Eggs Benedict” also fits within Johnson’s personal artistic tradition. She’s often used public figures as subject matter in ironic ways, and she’s created numerous works using parallel techniques.

For instance, Johnson created a series of needlepoint works depicting women’s breasts. The process of creation involved juxtaposing a medium associated with traditional femininity and subject matter considered taboo by traditional women. In a similar spirit, she created a series of cross-stitched portraits of celebrities such as Paris Hilton.

Johnson “painted” Amy Winehouse using plastic shopping bags wrapped around wire. She says the piece was inspired by the public’s fascination with fallen celebrities, and she used the bags to symbolize supermarkets, where most people get the skinny on the rich and famous from tabloids displayed in check-out lines.

For “Eggs Benedict,” Johnson wrapped condoms around a wire grid. There are two sides to the piece – the front presents a surprisingly realistic picture of the former pope “stitched” in latex, while the rear is a stunningly colorful abstract collage of dangling condoms.

Johnson says she was particularly pleased with the “festive” effect of the work. “It demystifies the condom,” she says. “It re-imagines (condoms) as a material for color.” 

Portrait Society Gallery owner Deb Brehmer has shown Johnson’s work in the past, including needlepoint images of the wives of presidential candidates. In a press statement announcing the exhibition of “Eggs Benedict,” Brehmer explained that Johnson’s work is representative of her gallery’s mission.

“The gallery was founded five years ago to explore contemporary manifestations of the portrait by applying an expansive definition of what a portrait entails,” Brehmer wrote. “Much of the work presented at Portrait Society is project-oriented and interested in how art engages with the world and, as a form of private and public communication, how it can engender relationships, conversations and new dimensions of ‘community.’”

Brehmer says she expects “Eggs Benedict” to draw criticism from viewers who miss the point – which is that there is no point except the one they bring to it.

“Art tends not to be polemic, it tends to be an open question,” Brehmer says. “That’s a great thing. I’m excited to have it, and if it’s controversial, so be it. I think of the piece as respectful and coming from the right motive in the artist. So bring ’em on.”

Brehmer, who plans to distribute condoms while “Eggs Benedict” is on display, says the piece helps to bring prophylactics “out of hiding.” As a parent of teenagers, she says the work has helped her initiate an important dialogue with her 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter about the subject.

(Editor’s note: Debra Brehmer is a Wisconsin Gazette contributor.)

On view

Niki Johnson’s “Eggs Benedict” is on exhibit at Portrait Society Gallery, 207 E. Buffalo St., fifth floor, through May 10. Additional work by Johnson will be included in the gallery’s upcoming show “Sourcebook: Martha Wilson and MKE New Feminist Makers.”