INSIDE ARTISTS MAGAZINE, ALEXANDER JOHNSON INTERVIEW, APRIL 2015
Inside Artists: It is interesting that you are able to create work with such a striking contemporary aesthetic using largely traditional techniques, is this juxtaposition of the old and new a conscious aspect of your process?
AJ: As a painter, you don't start from nowhere; there is a weight of history that is impossible to ignore. I acknowledge this by using traditional techniques because I see no need to abandon them. I was trained traditionally and we have oil paintings from the fourteenth century that are still in superb condition, so we know oil paint lasts and still looks great. Having said that, equally I see no point in trying to paint like Turner or Rembrandt, they already did it so well - and painting photo-realistically just bores me to death, what's the point? Just take a photo! Instead I try to create my own language, which after a lifetime studying art-history obviously has references from the past, but hopefully has enough of my own personality to be recognisably mine. Abstraction itself is quite old-fashioned now, Malevich invented it around 100 years ago, but I've always thought and remembered things in an abstract way, so for me it feels fresh and honest, I like to think I'm slowly getting better at it.
Inside Artists: You speak of wanting to show the hand of the artist in your work, how has this affected the way you make work?
AJ: I used to spend time 'tidying up' images, repainting areas that were painted roughly or just sketched in and trying to make them look more slick. It's a terribly bad habit, because as with drawing, the first marks you make are inevitably the most expressive ones and the ones that are truest to your own vision. I looked at early paintings by Matisse who obviously realised that when you go back and re-do areas and straighten-up all the wobbly edges, you just snip away at their power until they look lifeless. It's the irony of being a painter all my life that, when I finally learnt to paint things 'properly', I realised that it was a total dead-end, my work just looked like everyone else's. That was when I abandoned figurative painting in favour of abstraction, in order to find my own voice. I am so much happier with my work now and find my work practice more challenging and interesting than before. These days I paint pictures that I would want on my own wall, rather than what the majority of people would probably be happy with.
Inside Artists: Do you have a set of rules you tend to follow when you paint?
AJ: The great thing about art in the twenty first century is that there aren't any rules. But the best artists have always broken the established rules of the day anyway; that's why they are still interesting. I have to guard against falling into that formulaic way of working that so many contemporary artists seem to succumb to, making the same painting over and over again. Thankfully I get bored easily and to keep myself interested I constantly challenge my established ways of working. I want a finished object that has strength rather than prettiness and I am wary of making things that 'look nice' in a comfortable middle-class way - as Picasso famously said, "Taste is the enemy of creativity." Some people are very nervous about what the neighbours may think. I tend to appeal to people who know their own minds and have confidence in their own sense of style. A lot or designers and architects buy my work for that reason.
Inside Artists: How do you decide when a work is complete?
AJ: I'm not sure if I really decide, I think the work tells me. It's really a matter of getting to the stage where nothing that I add or take away increases the power of the piece. But ultimately it's about coming up to the studio in the morning and my gut instinct telling me 'leave it, it's done'. Sometimes it never gets to that stage and I un-stretch the canvas and start again. The goal is to make a work that looks like it was done in five minutes and has that feeling of a spontaneous act; in fact that is never the case. On average, I work on paintings for at least a month often longer, usually in day-long bursts, then leaving them to rest. I need time in between actually painting to let the ideas brew in my head. It's like doing a crossword, often you make a good start, then things slow down and you convince yourself you can't get any more words so you leave it. Two days later you pick it up and fill in five more almost immediately – the brain processes things without you being aware. I think that instinct and experience play a big part in how I work, as well just intellect. I find that artwork which comes from the head rather than the heart is often superficial; whilst it may seem initially 'clever' it rarely holds a place in our heart long-term. A lot of digitally produced art is like that for me, I can find it fascinating but it's ultimately soulless, you can't see the hand of the person who made it so there's a disconnect for me.
ALEXANDER JOHNSON | INTERVIEW JUNE 2015 | INSIDE ARTISTS ISSUE 2.