Alexander Johnson, Printmaker – from punk graphics to Rembrandt
Being an artist
Please give us a few words of introduction about yourself
Painter/printmaker making semi-abstract work influenced by everything from punk graphics to Rembrandt.
When did you decide to pursue art as a career?
After seeing a sculpture by picasso in Antibes in 1976 when I was 12.
What training did you have?
Two year foundation course at West Sussex College of Design followed by BA in Fine Art in Cardiff.
What has been the high point of your career so far?
Exhibiting at the Royal Academy in the Stowell’s Trophy exhibition in 1984 was nice as a start. These days I love it when old clients track me down on the web to say they still love the print they bought 20 years ago (even better if they want to buy a new one!).
What’s your favourite quote?
Traveller; there is no way, you make your way by walking – (loose translation from the Spanish by Antonio Machado).
Who is your favourite artist?
Currently Richard Diebenkorn but it changes every few months. I never tire of Matisse or Picasso – especially very early and very late work. Peter Saville is sublime.
What are you aiming for?
Just to keep working, improving and increasing exposure.
How will you get there?
Hard work and planning with my agent!
Is anything holding you back?
Periodic bouts of pessimism.
What feelings or reactions do you hope to arouse in people who view your work? Are you ever surprised by reactions that you get?
I had an old woman come up to me in tears last year at an Open House saying she found my paintings ‘very moving’, which was a bit disconcerting, but she went on to explain that she had been looking at paintings all her life, often with her now deceased husband and that she was sure he would have loved them too. I hope to provoke emotional responses and for people to form their own interpretations of the work, which is more interesting than being asked what a particular piece is ‘about’. I try to leave enough space in the pictures for people to breathe in their own ideas.
From start to finish, how long does it take for you to create your work?
It depends, I destroy as much work as I finish. A lot of time is spent waiting and looking when I’m painting. Printing is more straightforward as I’ve been doing it for 30 years now and I know the materials and what I want to achieve, I try to keep experimenting within the parameters of the medium. Painting can be painfully slow but you can’t rush it, I take my refuge in screen-printing when the painting stalls, which helps me work through my ideas.
What music do you like to listen to when you work?
Old punk/post punk, Arvo Pärt, Grieg, lots of Mogwai, ’70s Jamaican reggae (Misty, U-Roy, Heptones) and Radio 4. I love Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday service on BBC 6 music and listen to it on the iPlayer often, Desert Island Discs as well.
What are you working on next? Any future plans or projects in the pipeline that we should look out for?
Preparing new work for the 2011 Open Houses Festival, gallery submissions post-Easter, and a gallery submission in LA.
Being inspired by art
Who (living or dead) inspires you? and why?
Patti Smith for her commitment to her vision, her belief in the redeeming power of Art, her beautiful words and music, and her incredible voice which still sounds like it did when she was 20. I see her live whenever I get the chance. Writers like Colm ToibÃn and William Boyd astound me with their work, I would love to be a writer but would never have the patience. All teachers worldwide. Amnesty International for having the vision years ago for what has now become a mainstream push for global human rights.
What feelings, subjects or concepts inspire you as an artist?
Colour and shape are what inspire me more than subject matter. You can keep your concepts – I have my own ideas thank you! Give me something to look at or listen to. Painting is such a subjective thing. I love twentieth century abstract-geometrical painting and I love Renaissance fresco artists like Massaccio who died when he was just 27, the work is completely different to look at, but makes me feel equally passionate. Who knows what that is? Art.
What is your favourite work that you’ve produced so far and why?
The last print I completed called Legacy is about my father’s early life as a spitfire pilot. He flew over North Africa taking recconnaisance photos and I have used the cutting-room photo scraps from his diaries of the time as a basis for a print, the green spitfire-shape is to signify his naivite and youth. He was 19/20 years old flying solo missions, unthinkable today, and it was good to reflect on this in my work.
an artist’s advice
For those thinking about turning a passion for art into a career, could you give any advice?
Be prepared to be patient. You will not be an overnight success, there are too many artists these days for that to happen. David Hockney apparently used to have a note above the foot of his bed that read ‘Get up and work immediately’ – I think that about sums it up. In terms of commercial opportunities, if it sounds too good to be true – it usually is. Open exhibitions are often a way for inefficient commercial galleries to raise funds due to not selling work, so choose which ones you apply for carefully as it can be very demoralising and is more a matter of luck than judgement. Never leave work with a gallery without a signed consignement note. Be in it for the love of it, enjoy yourself, trust yourself, be true to yourself and don’t be afraid to experiment. I am happy to be able to live my life as an artist and that is enough for me, when I get more that’s great, but it’s a luxury just to be able to paint in a country where you are free to do that. Be thankful.
Any tips on how to get your work seen and get the commissions coming in?
Choose where you exhibit carefully, establish who is interested in your work and find a venue that reflects that. Watch your prices, too low can be just as off-putting as too high, be professional and make sure frames and any accompanying information are of a high standard. Never begin a commission without a non-refundable deposit to cover your materials, but if you are uncomfortable talking about money, don’t do them.