V&A honour Chiswick artist Ben Johnson with retrospective

The Victoria & Albert museum is honouring artist Ben Johnson by putting on a retrospective of his work. Ben has a studio at Chiswick Mall and regularly shows his work as part of Artists At Home.

The exhibition was to have been hung in the museum and the intention was for him to set up his studio and paint in the museum, but because of the pressures of Covid they have instead opted for a virtual exhibition. The result is a new collaboration between the V&A and the Vault of Contemporary Art.

A tour through architectural history

Ben paints buildings and cityscapes, never with any people in them, and though he paints in minute detail, he fills huge canvases that can take him years to complete.

The retrospective has come about because curator Christopher Turner, Keeper of Graphic Art and Design, Photography and Architecture at the V&A, saw some of his work, of high tech architecture from the 1960s and when he visited Ben’s studio, he realised that going through his paintings was like taking a tour through architectural history.

Perfect Spaces: Paintings by Ben Johnson takes the viewer chronologically through ten of his paintings spanning 50 years, taking in classical architecture, modern constructions of glass and steel and Islamic architecture.

Image above: Ben in his studio; portrait by Daniel Lewis

A love of geometry

Ben left school at 14. He describes himself as “very dyslexic”, which made school a struggle, but in that same year he bought a geometry set and he says he has never looked back. When I asked him how his work had developed over 50 years he said:

“I haven’t developed, I’ve just spent 50 years finding out what drives me, which is a love of structure; that’s what I see as important”.

He has a particular fascination with Islamic architecture – you may have seen his picture of the Alhambra palace in Granada in the making, during Artists At Home open studio weekends over the past few years.

“I am obsessed by geometry” he told The Chiswick Calendar. “It lies at the basis of most things – the cell structure of our bones and houses. The world of Islam doesn’t represent people, it uses geometry as a way of talking about the spirit”.

More real than reality

Ben doesn’t use people in his pictures because, he says, people would give a sense of scale which would make the painting a factual representation rather than an illusion of space.

“I research and question every detail but I am only using paint and canvas. It is just an illusion of space. Nobody knows how big a door is… In that illusion is truth”.

In saying that, he put his finger on why I have always had a sense that his images are more real than reality. Every detail is perfect, bright and clear, with clean, precise lines; they’re crystalline but not just clinical. There’s a joy and an energy to them, in which you can intuit his appreciation of the superb craftsmanship which has gone into the making of the original building.

Image above: Poolside reflection – Ben Johnson

Coming home

“I’m obsessed with craft” he says. “I’ve been fascinated with the way in which people have become creative during lockdown. It’s been difficult to get paints because a lot of people have taken up painting and are learning about themselves”.

Despite leaving school at 14, he did a post grad course at the Royal College of Art at the age of 19, without having done an undergraduate course.

“I hadn’t been taught. I relied on instinct”

Going to the art school necessitated walking through the V&A to get to classes, so he feels that being exhibited by the museum is in a sense coming home. It was studying the contents of the V&A as much as the experience of learning at the art school which made him realise he wanted to be an artist. The exhibits in the V&A inspired him, made him realise the nobility in creating something as simple as a clasp or a lock.

“It made me realise I wanted to be a craftsperson and get my hands dirty making something”.

“I am honoured to have been chosen by the V&A”.

It is a huge shame that his paintings aren’t being shown in the way in which they were intended to be seen, but none the less he considers the virtual exhibition to be “embarking on a brave adventure, breaking new ground” and is proud to be their chosen artist.

Image above: Queen’s House Greenwich II – Ben Johnson

The paintings

The ten paintings the curator has chosen are:

Queen’s House Greenwich II (1978)
Designed by Inigo Jones, known as England’s first great architect, it was one of his first designs for Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James I. The house is most famous for the Tulip Stairs, a spiral staircase. Ben chose to paint an interior archway which he felt was “an invitation to go on a journey.”

Poolside Reflection (1984)
Based on the Willis Building in Ipswich by Foster and Partners. Ben delighted in the way the architects had not only incorporated a swimming pool for the work space but put the boiler room, traditionally a dark space, hidden away, beside it. The vibrancy, colour and light of the building revolutionised the relationship between the workforce and their work place.

Inmos Central Spine (1985)
The Inmos Microprocessor factory in Newport, Wales was one of Richard Rogers’ radical inside-out buildings. The central spine was to be a place for social interaction between staff who worked on two sides of the company.

The Crystal Palace Reconstruction II (1985)
The Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton, collaborating with Owen Jones, is a very significant building for Ben. Paxton, trained as a gardener by the Horticultural Society in Chiswick, designed the first glasshouse that enabled gardeners to keep foreign plants alive in the British climate, but it was his collaboration with architect and design theorist Owen Jones which was most significant to Ben.

The Crystal Palace was “awe-inspiring”, he said and “Owen Jones is the person who made Europe aware of the Alhambra. He revolutionised design and that’s how the V&A came about”.

Image above: The Rookery – Ben Johnson

The Rookery (1995)
Similarly The Rookery is a building which has had a profound impact on the development of the architecture which came after it. Completed in Chicago by architects Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root of Burnham and Root in 1888, it is considered one of their masterpiece buildings.

“It was the first building to go up in Chicago after a fire which destroyed the city. It was inspired by Oriel Chambers in Liverpool, by Peter Ellis, which was the first steel building in the UK. Burnham and Root saw it and took it as their inspiration. It influenced the rest of the buildings in Chicago and then New York”.

Three Moments of Illumination (1998)
Based on the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong.

“One of Foster’s earliest and most important triumphs in 1986.

“I had long wanted to make this painting but refused to make it at anything other than heroic scale – a scale which meant my proposals were refused by most collectors. It took until 1998 to find a brave client to house such a work”.

The Liverpool Cityscape (2008)
This painting took Ben three years to complete. He’s made 200 paintngs over the 50 years of his career so far. “In a good year I can do four paintings”.

“I felt it was important that a very large geographic area should be protrayed. The city is so dependent on the River Mersey that it needed to be in the foreground, almost supporting the buildings that owe their existence to the water”.

Image above: Approaching the Mirador – Ben Johnson

Approaching the Mirador (2013)
The Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.

“Following the epic undertaking that the Liverpool cityscape proved to be, I was looking for a change no less important but perhaps slightly less complex in its realisation. The world of Islamic pattern, sacred geometry and the sheer beauty that is the Alhambra in Granada, became the next area for my concentration”.

Roman Room (2014)
The Neues Museum in Berlin, destroyed during the Second World War by both the British and the Russians, was restored from 1999 to 2009 by David Chipperfield, who deliberately kept the marks of violence on the building. This is reflected in Ben’s painting of the Roman Room.

“It shows an interesting attitude to creativity. Like the Taliban destroying the Buddhas in Bamiyan, why do people get so angry about other people creating things rather than destroying?”

Dome of the Rock Triptych (2017)
Ben’s three paintings of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem explores “sacred geometry”.

“Every tile pattern has a significance. Every tile pattern is laid down as a celebration to God, whoever that God is”.

The virtual exhibition also enables the viewer to enter Ben’s studio and to view another gallery in which he explains his process. The functionality is a bit clunky. It takes a while to work out how to explore the virtual gallery space, but once you’ve become reconciled to the idea that clicking on the numbered image does not take you to the painitng in that gallery and you have discovered that there is a virtual doorway which takes you back to the courtyard, to navigate your way to another gallery, you get the hang of it.

Just don’t whatever you do, press the back button, because it doesn’t take you back to where you just were, it takes you back to the beginning and you have to wait for the galleries to load again. But persevere! The chance to see Ben’s extraordinary paintings and hear him explain on video why he chose the buildings he did, is well worth committing the time to get used to the virtual gallery experience.

It makes me want to go and see each of these amazing buildings for myself, but since that’s not possible, I’ll settle for pouring myself a glass of wine and going back through the galleries to enjoy the paintings again.

Perfect Spaces: Paintings by Ben Johnson, the paintings, with short videos explaining why the particular building caught the artist’s interest, is available to view here, until 1 September 2021.

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