Southampton City Art Gallery, Civic Centre Road, Southampton SO14 7LP

Ben Johnson: Spirit of Place

Southampton City Art Gallery

18 September 2015 - 23 January 2016

Review by Eva Szwarc

Time after time, painting has been declared dead. Matches have been taken to its name, the obituary written and ashes scattered. Upon every single occasion, however, painting rises with defiance and proves its relevance again and again. The ability to do so relies upon the innovation with which artists continue to approach the medium. Among such artists is Ben Johnson, whose first retrospective show, ‘Spirit of Place’, proves that painting has lost none of its magic in captivating the viewer. Magic itself is integral to Johnson’s work. Revolving around architectural structures, his paintings are so remarkably realistic that they begin to play tricks. Containing such controlled detail, it is easily forgotten that the world Johnson presents is ultimately nothing more than acrylic upon canvas.

Considering Johnson’s meticulous style, the exhibition opens with a strikingly different version of his work. Produced during his student days at the turn of the 1970s, the paintings which greet us are crowded with human figures. Expressionist in style and vibrant in colour, these peopled scenes little anticipate the obsession with structures and geometric forms consuming the rest of Johnson’s work in the following four rooms. The next room introduces the artist’s discovery of architecture and indeed appears entirely separate in terms of subject matter. Here is a world of the mundane - doors, buildings, bolts, interior structures - in which the human has become seemingly obsolete. Human presence is no more than a trace; all that is left behind are fingerprint marks imprinted on a lift door (as seen in one painting). Even Johnson’s use of the spray gun, with which the remainder of his work is created, replaces the personal touch of a paintbrush with an element of objectivity.

However, the longer spent exploring the exhibition, the more intrinsic human presence appears to be. The use of vanishing points and reflection, whether upon a glass-panelled building or an indoor pool, create a sense of depth that entice the viewer. These painted spaces do not simply attract the viewer, but absorb them within. We are offered a serene and still environment of modern interiors, in which we are invited to imagine ourselves. The depth and space so magically formed offer its viewer to step inside and enjoy a moment of tranquility, enticing the human presence to enter the canvas itself.

As Johnson’s work becomes more recent, the spaces represented curiously become more ancient. Within the fourth room, modern structures have been replaced by historical environments. Whilst the spaces previously offered were confident and clean, here we have aged and deteriorating interiors. Containing cracked mirrors, deteriorated furniture, supported pillars, and crumbling walls, the paintings carry a sense of uncertainty, a precariousness about the fragility of ageing. Simultaneously the work, immersed in golden tones, possesses a grandeur and majesty that pay tribute to the enduring ability of environments to withstand the affects of time. Though these are spaces susceptible to collapse, Johnson immortalises them and sheds, ‘present light on the past’ - as one painting is aptly titled.

The chronological order of the exhibition is successful in showing Johnson’s journey over time, to reveal the artist as unafraid in continuing to approach and conquer new territory. This territory moves from modern to ancient realms, allowing the viewer to both imagine their place within the environment and realise the history of humankind that is present in every ounce of architecture. The exhibition points to the significance not only of the immensity of constructed spaces, but also of the individual’s relationship to such spaces. ‘Spirit of Place’ is homage both to the world we have formed and to the way we exist within it.

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