Confrontations with reality: Ben Johnson in practice
Tucked behind a discreet entrance close by a west London tube station is the studio of artist Ben Johnson. Converted by architect MJ Long from a former builder’s merchant’s premises, it forms – along with two similar spaces for other artists, all gathered around a courtyard – a quiet, creative enclave.
Inside, the space is bright, white and warm. Incomplete paintings fill two walls. One is a large, richly-coloured interior of a room from the Neues Museum, Berlin, which Johnson visited in spring 2011 (I was there at the same time and we met), its deep reds and earthy tones a trompe l’oeil against the wall. Contrasting, three panels in cool blues and whites representing the interior of John Pawson’s Novy Dvur Monastery in the Czech Republic run along the other wall; when complete, Johnson aims to hang them in a manner which encloses the viewer like a folded triptych, to simulate being in the space they depict. Finally, a smaller work highlights objects from the Neues Museum’s collection, their aged, textured surfaces standing out within the image against flat, neutral walls.
Tables carry paint pots and tools hang on the wall. An open hatch in the floor leads to a basement store. A long desk supports three computers. Near the entrance there is a kitchenette and tall, well-populated bookshelf. Reference material is pinned to walls or lying on tables, including precise, computer-generated drawings of tiles from the Alhambra palace, Spain. Their intricate geometry was reverse-engineered from the originals for Johnson by an international expert, to enable their eventual depiction in a painting by precisely-cut mask and spray head.
We begin our conversation examining high-resolution photographs of the inside of the Neues Museum on a computer monitor. Johnson explains that some are his own, taken during his visit, whilst others are by a German photographer and record the Museum’s fabric at the very start of David Chipperfield’s restoration nearly ten years ago. Johnson has manipulated both to create a merged image that is informing his work-in-progress, the large painting mentioned above that will ultimately show the Museum in an imagined state part way between then and now.
In terms of this particular project, what are you looking for when you’re looking at those images?
It’s something… it’s to try and get back to the feeling I had when I was in the building, which was above and beyond the admiration for the restoration work, because it is a phenomenal piece of craft, and I think the humility and the modesty of the architects and their intervention, to actually re-present an extraordinary building... But that building for me, it just seemed to be full of hidden voices, messages from the past, a past that was violent, very strong, painful, and maybe I’m just being over-romantic, but I don’t think I am, there is something very… the whole of Berlin makes you start questioning your knowledge, however limited it is, of the past.
That’s very interesting because I think we both found that, independently, there, and I tried to reflect that in my piece.
Well I think there are constant echoes, and for me the Neues Museum is a very very convenient vehicle for concentrating that discovering of the past in the present, and I think that that’s what intrigues me. I’ve found the painting much much – the one I started, the main painting, which is on the wall now – I’ve found it much much more complex than anything I’ve done for a long time, probably as complex as the cityscapes, and it’s really challenging my own technical ability as a draftsman and as a painter, but I’m finding it very exciting. I’m not sure if ultimately it’s a good painting or not, but I’ve enjoyed the experience.
Would you say that what you found in the Neues Museum as a subject has been different from your previous work, the individual buildings work, or is it a continuation in some way… what linkages if any would you see?
I think one of the things that I found in the Neues Museum is that it was a confrontation with reality and also surfaces that are not pristine. So many of my paintings are about pristine surfaces, where there’s been very little layering of the past, in fact they’re almost dreams of spaces that didn’t exist, in fact one or two of my paintings have been… there was one called The Unseen Space, and it was actually based on a model of a proposal for a building. And I think many of my paintings have an ethereal, or even – I hate to use the word, and I hope it’s not true – a superficiality, which is about the surface, which leads you on to think about things that are above and beyond the subject matter, perhaps.
Would you say in a sense those particular paintings have, and were intended to have, a spiritual quality?
Yes, yes, but I think that within the Neues Museum, what I’m doing is I’m acknowledging the fact that one’s spiritual journey is often the result of some hard times, or harshness; it’s not all about quiet meditation on Nirvana [laughs]. It can be about considering a more hellish side to life, not necessarily heavenly.
And as you were saying, in that respect, this is quite a departure in terms of some of your individual architectural work. Is it a direction you are enjoying and finding rewarding, as well as challenging, as you said?
Yes. I think that perhaps there is a maturity in the painting that may not have been in some of the other paintings. I think I’m addressing my own past as well, and I’m finding it intriguing that I am looking into spaces that I hadn’t previously ever thought of looking into, in fact perhaps I’ve even avoided looking into those spaces.
Just because they’re not particularly pleasant memories. So I’m not talking about Germany’s history, I’m talking about my own history, and my own confrontation with perhaps the slightly uglier side of life.
That’s particularly interesting looking, as we are, at the Neues painting half-way through, and then the Pawson chapel, which you could say is more of a linkage to those ethereal works you were talking about. But also as you said to me earlier, the way you’re thinking of presenting them is another manipulation of space and time, having them all round you… this exploration of space and time and interrupting the two in different ways I think comes over quite strongly in your work
Well for me the act of painting is a very physical act and my process is very elaborate and very… it is very labour-intensive, and the labour intensiveness is all part of the process of creating the painting and the painting is a by-product of the way I’ve chosen to work. I’m always frustrated by the fact that my work tends to be seen more in reproduction than in reality and people think that I’m concerned with image-making, and I’m not at all interested in image. The image is the by-product of the process, although it can sometimes be the catalyst for meditation and consideration and exploration of craft.
Does that mean then that the process that you’ve chosen to use clearly does mean more to you than the output in a way, and is it because of that linkage to craft, because we talked about that when you were at the National Gallery and there was clearly something more to it than that – to use your word – superficiality that you mentioned earlier?
It means a great deal. I’m certainly not an intellectual, and I express and discover myself through craft, and if I wasn’t a painter, I’d probably be a cabinet-maker or I would work with wood perhaps, but I would have to think through my hands rather than my brain [laughs].
I think that does give lie to the idea of the works being – again, it’s that word again, and I’m trying to think of a different one – superficial. Again, I was really struck by that, and I think the complexity of the process… that IS the process
Well for me, when I was at school, I really found salvation through craft and through art, because everything else really left me very confused and frustrated. Looking back on it, I was quite clearly pretty dyslexic. I can remember staring at blackboards wondering why letters were jumping out and floating around and not forming a pattern, and when I tried to copy them, things came out back to front or upside down. It’s now much more obvious what was going on. But, when I was in front of a piece of wood with a saw and a plane, I could put them together pretty well. And also I got so much satisfaction and depth of pleasure from just being in an art room and working with art, so I left school at fourteen and went straight to art school, which you could do in those days, you wouldn’t be able to now. But for me that was the salvation I’d have gone under without.
Do you think then in that case, that love of craft is partly the fact that it gives you control?
Well I’ve probably got a problem being a control freak so increasingly… I’ve enjoyed over the last twenty years working with assistants, but I’m a hell of a person to work for because I ask somebody to do a job and then whatever I think of them and their abilities, I’m standing right behind them, so it’s so painful for everybody else. But I do want to be in control, and I think I am scared of not being in control.
And I think that’s really interesting, what you said about your childhood there, because obviously all craft is a way of exercising control over the material, over your thoughts, over the processes, and to a degree over the outcome, so as you say, I think that clearly has some attraction and still does have some attraction for you.
Oh yes, yes, and I get an enormous amount of pleasure from looking at objects, so I feel just as comfortable in a bicycle shop, looking at a well-made bicycle, as I do looking at pieces of textile in the V&A or a great Renaissance painting either in a church or within an art gallery.
Which I guess again is an appreciation of craft.
Yes, it’s all about craft, and I also enjoy watching craftspeople work, I enjoy watching people using their hands. And also I think I’ve seen a depth of intellect amongst many craftspeople that is equivalent, and an alternative, to those people that work with books and words, and often quite a spiritual quality; it’s particularly strong amongst gardeners.
I think so. I think people who work with soil and work with the land and plant and develop gardens are involved in a very interesting physical activity which often transcends the physical and the material and becomes something quite spiritual.
Which in a way does make sense, because if you accept that craft is exercising some form of control, in a positive sense, then with gardening you’re doing that but you’re also creating life as well, effectively.
Yes, and also one learns very quickly that you have to work with plants. They don’t… they have their own life. It’s rather like when I, when we had our first child, I thought that you almost ordered a child and you then put it in the ordered environment that you had created. I didn’t realise that they came out ready-formed, with their own personalities, and in fact it’s then a constant battle to actually form a relationship. I also did a ridiculous thing about ten years ago, I decided to get an allotment, and I got my allotment, twenty feet by seventy feet, and the first thing I did is to go to the allotment with a piece of string and pegs and a spirit level and it was dominated by Irish people who mainly grew potatoes. And they nudged each other when they saw me walking down with the spirit level, and they said ‘the buggers won’t pay any attention to that spirit level, they’ll do what they want to do’ [laughs] and it was a ridiculous thing but it was my way of approaching it. You know, I spent a long time measuring things out and getting the levels right. And then got carrot fly blight, etcetera.
We’re surrounded by lots of details and elements that will all eventually form part of some of the works that you’re currently working on. Do you think there’s a danger in being too involved in that level of detail? Do you think you lose the big picture, no pun intended? Clearly that is part of the process with you, but do you think you can take that too far?
Yes, you can take it too far, but what I do is almost like justification. I have to investigate, I have to go and – not on all occasions but on many occasions – almost live in the space for a very prolonged time. I may spend only five percent of the time there taking photographs or making drawings but I am just absorbing that space. I then go and read about the background, I look at images that have surrounded that building and its context, its broader context, both political, physical, and all of it, ultimately, brings me right back to where I started in the first place which is something very simple, but I almost need to go through that painful, long-winded process, to arrive where I started, but as TS Eliot said, to recognise it for the first time.
So I spend a lot of time going round in a big circle[!].
How do your works begin, generally? Do you have a particular moment that hits you, is it something that you approach more leisurely, or is it a combination of both?
I can sometimes be arrested by an image, either on the internet, or in a book, or standing in a space – that’s a slightly different activity, and I’ll come to that in a minute. So I’m often arrested by an image and, since I was fourteen, I started cutting bits out of papers and putting them in a sketchbook and I’ll often let them stay there for five, ten years even, and I’m flicking through those sketchbooks, those notebooks, until one day I think ‘that was a powerful image, now I must investigate it’. The building may even have disappeared. I’m talking about buildings because most of my subject matter for the last forty years has been architecture and the built environment.
But then there’s the other activity of actually deciding to go and look at a particular space, and then become absorbed in that space and walk around it. I’m very lucky on occasions, not so much nowadays because health and safety regulations on building sites are such that you can’t just turn up and say ‘I wonder if I can stay behind when you’ve all gone’. So now I take every opportunity I can to find myself on my own in a given space and walk around until I find myself coming back, which I often do, to the same spot, over and over again, and then I will set up the camera. I will then take photographs and what I’ve found many times, nine times out of ten, is if I’ve shown the image, my photograph, to the architect who designed the space, they’ll say ‘that’s the strangest thing, because you’ve taken the exact position that mentally I always saw the building from. In the back of my mind was the image that you’ve got there’.