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Alan Johnston retrospective: Bartha Contemporary London
5 May -
Review by Alan Fowler
Alan Johnston is probably most widely known for his large, site-
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-
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-
As well as this broad philosophic Zen-
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-
(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.
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.