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Alan Johnston retrospective: Bartha Contemporary London

5 May - 8 July 2017

Review by Alan Fowler

Alan Johnston is probably most widely known for his large, site-specific, abstract pencil drawings on walls and ceilings which respond to the architectural spaces in which they are located and subtly influence the visual perception of these spaces. An example in London is the work, entitled Tactile Geometry, commissioned for the vaulted ceiling of Tate Britain’s basement restaurant. Johnston has undertaken similar projects in many other buildings in the UK, the USA, Europe and Japan, all involving meticulously detailed incisions by hard pencil into the surfaces of the buildings’ structures.

These architectural works cannot, of course, be shown in Johnston’s  exhibition at von Bartha Contemporary, as they are integral to the buildings in which they are located. To that extent, the exhibition provides an incomplete survey of Johnston’s oeuvre. But there is a consistency of concept, aesthetic vision and faktura between his architectural projects and the domestic-scale works in this show. One feature in particular is common across all his work over many decades – the use of pencil, not as a preliminary or underlying element but as a predominant feature. Pencil is used by Johnston in all his work, not simply as line but also to form of a mesh or network of small, finely drawn and repeated marks across whole surfaces, to create a unique visual texture over a whole plane.

Texture is an essential aspect of all the works in this show – not simply because of the pencilled areas, but also by the unusual use and mix of beeswax, charcoal and acrylic. Looked at these paintings from a few feet away, many of their areas could be read as blocks of plain colour. But go closer, and what appeared to be a plane of black, grey or white is now revealed as a surface with subtle variations of tone and depth, providing visual animation not obvious on first glance.

Johnston’s works have been described by some commentators as consistent with modernist minimalism. Most of his paintings are certainly simple in their compositional geometry – note the predominance of rectangles. But the complexity of their textures indicates a far greater emphasis on their being carefully constructed objects than is evident in the “found object” quality of the bricks of Carl André or the boxes of Donald Judd.  Minimalism is essentially a reductive process, a paring back to the simplest form. Johnston’s paintings, however, involve a careful, complex and detailed attention to their construction which surely places them in a different category from mainstream minimalism.  The fact that this complexity may not be immediately obvious does not invalidate them as unique made objects which embody their maker’s very personal concepts of spatial relationships and surface texture.  Colour is also restrained, but is not limited to minimalist black and white nor to only the colour and texture of the basic material.

Intuition, however, may be influenced by factors external to the mind of the artist. For example, the intuitive shape and placement of forms in the work of the St Ives abstractionists such as Peter Lanyon and John Wells reflected their mental absorption of the shapes and colours of the Cornish landscape. In Johnston’s case, this external influence appears to lie mainly in Japan, with echoes of Zen Buddhism and the forms and colours of Japanese domestic architecture. He has described his Tate Britain work as “a quiet and appropriate dialogue of forms”, and the idea of silent stillness is very much in accord with a key concept of Zen. When in Japan he visited the Sesshu garden in Yamaguchi which embodies qualities running throughout Johnston’s work – a subtle and Zen-like simplicity combined with concern as much for the voids or spaces within and around the forms as for the forms themselves. The importance of this garden to Johnston is evidenced by the description of a group of his paintings as the Yamaguchi series, while still leaving each individual work untitled.

As well as this broad philosophic Zen-like influence, Johnston has established working links with several modernist Japanese architects, and the detailed forms in his paintings – the squares, rectangles and frames or borders – echo the shapes and dimensions of doors and windows in post-war Japanese domestic architecture. Their restricted colour range with its avoidance of primaries is also consistent with that of the modern Japanese domestic interior, as can be seen in the fascinating current exhibition at the Barbican – “The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945”.

This is not to suggest that Johnston’s art is dominated solely by Japanese influences. He is clearly a highly original artist whose artistic vision can span Western and Eastern aesthetics. For example, one of his site-specific works was made in a museum building in Houston, Texas, designed by the ex-Bauhaus modernist architect, Mies van der Rohe, with whom Johnston shared similar concepts of space as an essential compositional element. And as noted earlier in this review, there are features in the works in this exhibition which instantly draw the attention of constructivist or systems-based artists – even though this parallel is not wholly consistent. Taken as a whole, however, this show can be recommended for providing an opportunity to see a range of works which accord with the concept of the non-representational abstract as an object in its own right, and then reward close examination and contemplation for their subtleties of construction and artistic import. If there is a criticism of this exhibition it is that with only 24 works it is too small to provide a fully satisfactory survey of 40 years of Johnston’s extensive oeuvre – but it is certainly worth a visit.

(L) Untitled, 1993. Acrylic, charcoal and beeswax on linen. 96.5 x 72.7 cm / 38 x 28 ¾ in. (R ) Untitled, Pier / Inverleith Column, 1986. Zinc white acrylic, pencil, beeswax on plywood 183 x 94 x 94 cm / 72 x 37 x 37 in.

Untitled, 1987. Charcoal and beeswax, acrylic paint and pencil on canvas. 122.7 x 40.7 cm / 48 1/4 x 16 in.

Untitled, 1987. Acrylic and pencil on linen. 122 x 46 cm / 48 x 18 in.

Installation shot

Untitled, 1993. Acrylic paint, charcoal and beeswax on linen. 80 x 96 cm / 31 ½ x 37 ¾ in.

Untitled, 1988. Charcoal and acrylic on linen

46 x 35.5 cm

The largely orthogonal geometry of many of these works may suggest a link with constructivism, in some of the paintings featuring the square and the rectangle there are superficial resemblances to some of the paintings and reliefs of constructionist and systems artists such as Anthony Hill and Gillian Wise. A group of small sculptures feature another basic geometric form – the cylinder. Johnston also follows the constructivist principle of maintaining a distance between the artist and the art object by not signing his works and by not applying any form of representational title (all the works in this show are labelled “untitled”).  But where these geometric abstractions differ from those of Hill and the systems artists is that the dimensions, proportions and placement of their forms are not determined by any  underpinning of arithmetic or geometric system or rules. Johnston’s geometry is intuitive, not calculated.