Alexander Johnson; graphic influence.
It was the Dadaists who first began to use ready-printed graphic images in their work and present it as ‘fine art’ – you can see it in the masterful collages of Hannah Hoch and the work of Schwitters, Tzara and John Heartfield. These were artists who began working during the first world war and thought the most effective way they could make a pacifist statement about WW1 was to point out that everything so far, including the art so beloved of the generals and middle classes, had culminated in the bloodiest most brutal war in memory and should therefore be rejected. The way they rejected the established order was to literally cut it up and collage it back together to make a new world with art. Inventing collage as we know it today may be the single most influential act they made in that it also went on to become part of the working method of writers such as Joyce, Woolf and Burroughs and musicians including, Neu! and David Bowie in the 1970’s as well as visual artists. People laughed and vilified the Dadaists at the time, but in light of their subsequent influence over our digital world, not to mention Dadaism sowing the seeds of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual and Performance Art and latterly Punk, we can see that in fact they had more or less predicted the future of the 20th century.
In the late 1950’s, a group of artists in New York including Rauschenberg and Warhol began to settle on the ideas begun by the Dadaists and present it as central to their Fine Art practice; incorporating chance and pure emotional expression into their work. Abstract expressionism had enormous influence over the popular graphic design of the time, from American magazines like Time and Life, to book covers and Jazz record covers. I first became enchanted by graphic design through my teenage obsession with Punk. The first LP covers I remember really making me feel that something new was happening, were the Clash’s first LP designed by Caroline Coon, Jamie Reid’s unashamed Dadaist work plagiarised for the Sex Pistols and the masterful collages of Linder on covers by the Buzzcocks and Magazine which continued where Hannah Hoch had left off, using images from magazines and subverting them. I had an instinctive connection with the work, it appealed to my sense of humour and irreverence for rules and the established order. I had contempt for people who didn’t get it, Punk left me feeling wonderfully marginalised from mainstream tastes (something which has never really left me) and knowing that the only real option for me was Art College, where I went in 1980 at the age of 16. As a coda, when the headmaster of my comprehensive school discovered that I had applied for a two-year Foundation Course at Worthing Art Collage, I was summoned to his smoky office. He said that if it was my choice to ‘throw my life away and end up on drugs’ that Art College was a good place to start and dismissed me. I was ecstatic.
At Art College the tutors had me marked out for a career in graphic design, but after two years of trying unsuccessfully to tell me what to do and how to do it, admitted that a Fine Art degree might be a better option. I myself acknowledged that whilst I had no interest in making it, my love of and respect for graphic design would always be with me and I wasn’t about to hide it; why should I? If it was good enough for Warhol and Rauschenberg, it was good enough for me. It set me at loggerheads with most of the painting tutors on my Fine Art degree course at Cardiff Art College, hippy guys who had been at the Slade in the early 1970’s making huge abstract paintings, who all told me I was clinging on to my bright colours and defined shapes like a toddler to a teddy bear. I refused to succumb to their browns and greys and stuck doggedly to my day-glo tones, ending up in the print room making ever more lurid silkscreens - which elicited the desired contempt from the tutors I hated. I ended up with a second-class degree as a direct result of not doing what I was told, all the students who had towed the muddy-abstract line got firsts. Few of them however are artists today. If you survive by doing what you are told by tutors, who are you when those people are gone?
More recently, when I began making abstract work, I wondered if the influence of graphic imagery would still be discernible, but if anything my acknowledgement of the masterful composition of graphic heroes such as Peter Saville is more intact than ever. When you are resolving composition in abstract you become even more aware of the fine balance between line, shape and colour, precisely because there isn’t the distraction of trying to make an image that ‘looks like’ something. The older I get the more I want to simplify; when I was young I tried to squeeze as many ideas into each image as possible, now I want to leave only essential marks on the canvas. Work should become more thoughtful as we age - to reflect our own depth of experience and understanding - equally at this time in history when we are bombarded from every screen and surface with figurative images and faces, it feels right to be making work that offers an antidote to this human-centric world. Like the Dadaists I like to feel that by rejecting recognisable imagery in my work, I’m also rejecting all that I dislike about popular culture; the obsession with how people look and what they wear, the formulaic popular television and crass advertising campaigns and logos that swamp our cities. I may be kidding myself, but it feels like the right thing to do.