It looks like a photograph. No, wait, I think it is a collage. Yes, definitely, he cut out images from magazines and arranged them on to the canvas. A few steps closer. No, no, it is a photograph. Wait, but that looks like a brushstroke? Ten steps closer. That is definitely a brushstroke. Could it be? It is.
The other day I went to the Alan Cristea Gallery to see the works of Ben Johnson, a British artist who is recognizable for his extremely detailed cityscapes. When I say detailed, I mean detailed. His work of the city of Liverpool was built up over years. He researched the city, took over 3000 reference photographs of street views, aerial shots, etc. He spoke with architects, historians, and city dwellers all to get a holistic, and detailed sense of the city before beginning his work. He then began his canvas first laying out a grid, then building up from background to foreground. It was a huge painting, and every stroke counted. Magnifying glasses were in order.
It is clear that for Johnson, process is key. He must know, inside and out, what he is painting before he begins. Yet, some may observe that his paintings are simply photographic likenesses of scenes and present just surface reproductions. I argue there is more, much more.
His current exhibition at the Alan Cristea Gallery, Time Past and Present contains five works, each with their own wall. They are large paintings, and demand attention. Each one represents an interior space, one looking like a palace or museum, the other an outdoor area that might be found in a place like Marrakesh. At first blush you seem to feel you understand everything about the paintings. But your eye does not flick from painting to painting; it is not that easy. Something holds your attention despite the seeming satisfaction of “knowing” the paintings because of their immediate photographic representations. The distance created feels eerie. The paintings are almost, too perfect. You begin to wonder, is this real? Is this a photograph? You move closer, you move farther away, you then move closer again. You begin to see the slight artists’ hand and understand it is a painting. You then notice how sharp the lines are, was a ruler used? You follow the edges and they stack, intersect, and recede in a visually satisfying way. Yet all the while you know what you are looking at is not pure re-presentation. The color red on the right wall of the palace in his one painting is just slightly different in saturation than the color red on the left wall. This is not due to any light source; this is because we are looking at a hand-made object, inherently “imperfect”. The highlight on the cheek of one of the sculptures in his other painting has feathered edges, it is not perfectly dotted with a halo around it as a photograph might have captured it. In the work that looks to be of a scene from Marrakesh, the viewer is at once brought into a flattened and distanced space. The design work makes the entire painting feel decorative and surface, yet the suggestions of light and shadow communicate that we are actually looking into a kind of cubby space, maybe even the entrance into an outdoor courtyard. Unlike a photograph, this work presents nearness and distance at once. Yet, it miraculously carry’s details as if it were an exact replica made by a machine.
Johnson is, in my opinion, doing something truly fresh. Twentieth century art questioned perception. Artists were no longer interested in photographically documenting a scene because they felt that was a limiting, boring task. The days of Michelangelo and Raphael, of perfect illusionary representations were over. They wanted to enter a new world where the way in which people saw things, and translated them onto flat surfaces was experimental. They were wrestling with the ideas of perception, perception as that experience when one takes in five senses at once and synthesizes all those senses into one thing, one experience, one picture. Twentieth century British artist John Piper astutely stated, once a picture is no longer realistically depicted it is asking to be read and understood according to different terms than those associated with realism. Non-realistic art is doing something unrelated to illusion.
Yet, Johnson takes both the tradition of Renaissance likeness and modern forms to create images that when viewed yank the viewer in and out of illusionary belief. One moment we are treated like an audience from the Renaissance, other times we are treated like an audience from modern times. We are some where in between realistic illusion and abstraction. He takes his viewers on a journey that merges past artistic canons into a new process, and this process is theoretically, and aesthetically, breaking new ground. Johnson is a true contemporary artist.