wed 24/07/2019

Ben Johnson: Modern Perspectives, National Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Ben Johnson: Modern Perspectives, National Gallery

Ben Johnson: Modern Perspectives, National Gallery

Contemporary artist gives two cities the Canaletto treatment

Johnson working on 'Looking Back to Richmond House'All images copyright DACS

Oh dearie, dearie me. Modern Perspectives sounded like it had such promise. Running alongside the big Canaletto show in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, two finished works and one work in progress by Ben Johnson are on show in Room One. The idea is to look at a contemporary artist who, like Canaletto and his coevals, produces panoramic views of cities. Johnson, despite his quasi-illustrative, photo-realist style, says he produces not "topographical representations of a real place, but perhaps a manifestation of a dream... timeless and transcendent". Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

If you made a model of Liverpool out of matchsticks, is that art?

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Having observed both the Walker Art Gallery and the National Gallery residency I detected an audience who were deeply engaged with Ben’s paintings. The Liverpool cityscape attracted more than 50,000 viewers during the six weeks Ben was present and provided a vessel for the spectators to vent their civic pride. This created a feeling of involvement and inclusion attracting many people who would not necessarily set foot in a museum or art gallery under normal circumstances. Ben Johnson’s cityscapes celebrate and venerate a city by creating perfect, precisely ¬¬¬¬¬¬crafted buildings conforming to strict laws of perspective and geometry elevating them to a very absolute status. Walt Disney on the overhand puts clothes on animals gives them a voice and turns them into something comical for the purpose of entertainment. I fail to see a comparison. From a personal perspective observing the three cityscape paintings in Modern Perspectives is one that is transcendental and contemplative. They show cities that have been stripped of the detritus and banality of everyday life revealing an idealised place according to the artist’s own vision.

Well, "hand-drawing on a computer" is just like drawing on a piece of paper, virtual paper. It's still the hand that draws the line and the eye and mind that direct it, and that's clear from the work being done in the exhibition. The computer is the means by which the drawing is made, see countless other artists using computers as sketch books. Disney? No, Disney is entirely different, it is not rooted directly in observation, which all of Johnson's work is, and cartooned, which Johnson's work isn't, as far as I am concerned. Yes it is topographical but it also creates a world of the imagination to consider where the city in question came from, and where it might go to, from the frozen but long term worked images in the paintings. They can be seen to relate to 19thC city street photography when the exposures were so long, partly to obtain a reasonable depth-of-field, that no people registered at all. The contrast with Canaletto (who did include very simply and sometimes not very well painted figures) is fascinating in terms of the representation of surface, and in two of the pieces in the show, water. Look at Johnson's water and then go into the galleries and look at Canaletto's, much in common there, and fasinating differences. For another comparison see Crivelli's work where architectural forms and surfaces get the same address as Johnson gives them, and similarly remain suspended in a sense of being continually available to be re-seen with each new viewing, or within the same viewing. I'm sorry you were so briefly detained, Judith, by work which has clearly captured the interest of many different people, the gallery has been well filled every time I have been. The comment about matchsticks places Johnson's work with of the amateur craftsperson and the outsider. To me that is insulting to Johnson and completely irrelevant. Nothing I have seen made in matchsticks is art and these works are nothing like things made in matchsticks, they are art. Finally the size of the work: it is possible to see most of Canaletto's paintings in one close gaze, and to examine them in detail. Johnson's work, when you move into th detail, encloses and absorbs the viewer, well it does this one. If you haven't seen it, go before the 23 Jan, go with an open mind, be prepared to look and think...and congratulations to the National Gallery for this, Clive Head that preceded it, and Bridget Riley's current show.

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