Following his showcase in the Jerwood Drawing Prize 2017 exhibition in Bath in March 2018, we met with Alexander Johnson to learn more about his life as an artist, the evolution of his work into abstract form and his aversion to the slick digital images that encroach on modern-day life…
Alexander grew up in a rural setting in West Sussex, just outside Chichester in the 1960’s and 70’s. His formative years were spent in the shadow of the South Downs walking and cycling around with complete freedom. After finishing Art College in Cardiff, he spent the bulk of his adult life living in cities including London, Barcelona, Nijmegen and Brighton. But in 2015 he returned to the countryside where he grew up and rekindled his fond childhood memories of the old farm buildings and trees that were his playground as a child.
His work, even when abstracted, has always been about storytelling; setting down his own experiences and feelings, and and combining them with contemporary themes. Buildings, trees and pictorial elements climb into the canvasses to make their home amongst the abstract images. His work is a collage, combining memories from his youth with his new surroundings, as if time is elastic and the past can co-exist with the present. He aims to offer an antidote to the digitised age, asking us to relish the touch only a human can bring to a canvas and consider our own history and impact on the earth upon which we dwell.
Describe your art practice in five words
Strong, enquiring, risk-taking, dynamic, truthful.
What is your first ‘art’ memory?
My eureka moment was in Antibes, in the South of France in 1975 when I was eleven. It was the first time we had been abroad as a family, my first time on a plane. We were camping under the Scots Pines and the intoxication I felt from the language, smells and food of France are clearly punctuated by a memory of standing on the stairs in the Picasso Museum looking up at his sculpture of a bull’s head made from a bicycle saddle with handlebars for the horns. It was a lightning bolt moment for me and I knew from then onwards that I wanted to be an artist.
What is the main inspiration for your work? Are there any artists in particular that influence you?
I don’t wait for inspiration, I’m in the studio every day so new ideas surface during the working process and I develop them. I have kept daily sketchbooks for the last 35 years and this ongoing sketching and processing of ideas informs the larger work. Certain enduring interests influence me such as the contours from aerial reconnaissance photos that my father took in the war, which still thread their way through the work.
Contemporary artists need to be working outside of themselves to engage me, so artists like Rachel Whiteread, Jeremy Deller and Cornelia Parker are favourites.
In terms of art-history: Matisse and Picasso of course, also Philip Guston, Diebenkorn, Helen Frankenthaler, Goya, Rembrandt, Hepworth, Sandra Blow. Early on I became interested in Dada and Surrealism through punk graphics (Jamie Reid and Linder Sterling referenced Dada in their work).
Graphic designers like Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville and specific LP record covers are still a big influence. I play records in the studio as I paint, so for example, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane or the Clash’s first LP are a constant presence and must influence my thinking. I occasionally look at one of my paintings and realise it reminds me of a record cover, or that the particular colour I’m using corresponds exactly with a colour from one of them (I recently had that with a teal-blue I was using, I checked and it was exactly the same hue as The Sweetest Girl cover by Scritti Politti).
How would you like people to interpret your work? What does your work say about you?
I don’t know what my work says about me, it’s not really about me, it’s about history; the palimpsest of human life and tracks on the earth’s surface, the scars left by humankind on the earth. That in turn relates back to my father’s experiences as a reconnaissance photographer in the second world war. I may have an impetus to make work on that specific subject, but whether or not people pick up on it, or whether they just like the shapes and colours in the paintings I couldn’t say.
Ultimately art, like music, is instinctive and when people are choosing work to buy, I encourage them to listen to their gut instinct rather than their intellectual choice. Having said that, I’m not trying to make paintings that just look pretty, I am aiming for something that looks strong, that has a good underlying structure and has some truth. I don’t want them to be just wallpaper, it’s important to have a clear voice, a subliminal message perhaps.
Explain your process, from concept to finished piece
I don’t tend to work in a rhythmic or formulaic pattern like that. I like to experiment so I find it best to approach each day afresh. I agree with Picasso’s quote that ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working‘. That is my experience too. I’m in the studio every day and I get bored easily, so I’m constantly looking for ways to keep myself entertained while I make my work.
I make oil paintings, but also original prints, etchings, silkscreens and lithographs and ideas surface during these processes. I go to a print studio in Brighton to make the etchings and it’s good to rub shoulders with other artists – most of the time I’m working alone in my studio in the countryside.
Knowing when a painting is finished is the most difficult part of the process, although I find it easier to make good choices as I get older. I used to be tempted to tidy up images or show off my technical skills, but you can kill the vitality of a piece with just a couple of strokes too many, so I’m cautious now to leave the rough edges, that’s where the energy lies and that’s the truth of humanity – rough edges.
My aim is to produce an antidote to the slick digital images that surround us on screens everywhere. I like paintings with fingerprints and brush marks that have been made by a human being rather than a computer programme. The early ‘modern artists’ (Cezanne, Matisse, Degas) were right to find a new way to express themselves when photography became popular in the 1800’s – I hope I’m continuing in that tradition.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us...
I’ve been making art for nearly forty years and I’ve only just worked out what I’m doing.