LONDON — Regarding the use of photographs in painting, it’s no shortcut, at least not in the work of Ben Johnson. There can be few painters with as much endurance and commitment to an image — with camera, computer, stencils, and spray gun, he breaks the most abiding rules of art school.
One result of this rebellion is his cityscape of Merseyside, on permanent display at the Museum of Liverpool. It took 3,000 photographs, 25,000 stencils and, with the help of a sizeable team, three years of long days and long weeks to bring to fruition. But realism need not be lead-footed. This is a squeaky clean city without decay, dirt or even cars. A local told the artist she had just bought a postcard of the work since it is the only picture which shows Liverpool as good as it is in her mind.
Johnson finished the painting live at the city’s Walker Art Gallery, for two months giving lunchtime talks to community groups. “The first day there were a couple of hundred and we were staggered, but by the end we were having 1,100 people a day come to the gallery.” Detailed, panoramic and idealistic paintings of one’s home city are hard not to like, but what strikes you about that work is an almost spiritual intensity. It’s surely a painting about process, about time and energy, as much as it is a ‘realistic’ painting of Liverpool.
But despite the method and the precision, the artist says he sets out to make a painting “peaceful” rather than “perfect.” (“You can’t use that word, it’s too terrifying.”)
The complexity of many of his paintings is a pre-requisite, since, at 68, he still relishes a challenge. And whether or not it appeared that way at the time, Johnson’s whole life has been a challenge. By his account his father was an erratic and violent man. He left school with little education at the age of 14 or 15, getting into Wrexham Art School in Wales and the Royal College London on talent alone.
Life might have been tough, but Johnson hasn’t always been easy on himself. After graduating with a solo show in New York, he weighed up his work and decided that despite sales and success, he needed to spend the next two years trying to “exorcise” the influence of German Expressionism. Back in his London studio he returned to a boyhood interest in modernist architecture and worked his way from sponge, to diffuser, to spray gun. (The diffuser, he explains, was a lung powered air brush gun; “I had a lot of dizzy spells”). This was how Johnson became more himself.
A defining moment in his new approach was the staging of a landmark show of photorealism at the Serpentine Gallery in 1971. Despite the sniffiness of London critics, Johnson insists: “The show … removed any guilt I might have had about using photographs as starting points and as an object of meditation and consideration.”
He uses the word meditation advisedly. Johnson exudes a reassuring calm and it is only a mild surprise to learn that he has spent many years studying Buddhism. He talks about care and mindfulness as a critical component of painting, or indeed gardening or fishing. “I would like to hope I could transcend material by working to extreme lengths with raw materials,” he says. And this to me appears to be the overlooked value of his photorealist genre, a value which is obscured by a tendency among some of Johnson’s colleagues to paint diners and cars.
Johnson has just made a series of four overwhelming paintings of the Alhambra. “The one thing I was going to celebrate was Islamic architecture,” he says. “That was putting my feet back in the roots of geometry.” One thinks of the Sufi belief that this branch of maths is a hotline to the deity. “Behind all my paintings, I’m fascinated by geometry,” he tells me. And this is where architecture comes in: “I love what people do with their hands and to me a building is a manifestation of human ambition and also a collaboration between concept and manual skills of the people who make the idea happen.”
But despite having fans in the world of building design, including Sir Norman Foster, Johnson’s sales lie elsewhere. “Very few architects have ever bought my work, because generally architects don’t want anything as messy as a painting going and wrecking their buildings.” Yet, conversely, if your interior is a mess, it might benefit all the more from the serenity of one of Johnson’s works.
His West London studio is the epitome of a balance between order and disorder. It is brighter than the early evening outside. A compressor unit sits in the corner. Spray guns clip to the edge of the work surface. Meanwhile an industrial stencil cutter whirrs away downstairs and Johnson works from the control centre, a bank of three Mac computers at the operational helm. There are many splashes of paint, but even these appear restrained.
“Something that is important is that I, as a personality, never get in the way of somebody enjoying a painting,” says the artist. “The painting must be somebody discovering a little bit of themselves because that seems to me what’s important about the interaction between the painted art object. It’s to help you just go a little bit further on your own journey of discovery of who you are.”
Such a platonic ideal may be at odds with prevailing critical wings, but it’s hard not to be convinced by Johnson. His cool approach bears comparison with the most classical painters in the cannon, but his extreme acts of endurance call to mind late 20th century durational performance art. It is something new, certainly, something a photo cannot give you.
But you don’t need either point of reference to enjoy a painting such as “Room of the Revolutionary,” with its dusky pink interior pockmarked with bullets. Only days after our interview Johnson’s staged scene of conflict won the Visitors’ Choice Award in the Threadneedle Prize for figurative art. His shock is commendable, but the event reminds me of a comment he previously made: “Probably all our journeys are about one search for one thing and it maybe something that we lost very early.” The auspicious beginnings of Johnson’s career could be coming back around.
Work by Ben Johnson can currently be seen in Hyperrealism 1967–2013 at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (Museo Plaza, 2, Bilbao) through January 19, 2015.