Detail from Ben Johnson, Preparatory drawing for 'Looking Back to Richmond House'', 2010, superimposed on the geometry of Canaletto's The Stonemason's Yard © Ben Johnson 2010. All Rights Reserved DACS
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NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON 31.12.10
There are just three paintings in Ben Johnson’s exhibition, Modern Perspectives, in Room 1 of the National Gallery. They are cityscapes of London, Zurich and Liverpool. Photographs taken from the rooftop of the gallery helped to shape the London panel, shown here. The geometry of the painting was also influenced by Canaletto’s Stonemason’s Yard on display in a room nearby. Like Canaletto, Johnson manipulates the topography to create an ideal view. The cityscape is half real, half imagined.
A crowd of us stand quietly behind a barrier in this smallish room to watch Johnson and his assistants working, Each section is painted using an overlay of vinyl stencils which are cut out by a computer from drawings made by hand on the computer. The term for removing the stencils is 'weeding'. Although the preparation is a team effort, all the paint in his vast palette is mixed and applied by Johnson himself. As we watch he works away, drawing us in, reminding us ‘that every work in the museum is the product of people getting their hands dirty and often the product of collaboration’.
I begin to feel restless. Watching an artist at work is absorbing, but how can I get past the process and into the picture? ‘Stand in front of the painting’ Ben Johnson is quoted as saying, ’Approach the physical reality of paint on canvas with an open mind and a new subject should arise...a subject or image should dissolve and be replaced with the reality of now – of being in the present moment using just paint and canvas as an object of concentration. The image is just an illusion. The experience of observing is a reality’.
I can’t do that with work-in-progress because it’s too busy, so I turn away to the picture of Zurich hanging on a wall close by. The note says that the canvas took the artist and three assistants two years to complete. It’s a city I know and love, shown pure and true under a clear blue sky. It’s hyper–real, a term I first heard in 1993 when Philip Harris won the BP Portrait Award First Prize with his astonishing painting Two Figures in a Shallow Stream. Meticulous detail means that textures, surfaces, lighting. colours, all appear clearer and more distinct than in ‘reality’.
Nothing stirs in this Zurich. People, traffic, the changing shifts of weather are all absent and what is left is space, silence, stillness. I notice a 6-paned window half lit, half in shadow and feel the sheer pleasure of the warmth of the sun. A solid river Limmat, usually frisky, bisects the painting and flows into the lake. Shimmering water it undoubtedly is but it is present, ‘there’, in a way which is difficult to describe.