After attending a number of artist lead talks I have found it’s often tempting for the artist to just list their achievements and completely gloss over the struggles, the mind blanks and the obstacles they have faced to reach success. On Thursday evening however I was pleasantly surprised by Paul Johnson’s refreshingly honest talk concerning his own art practice. He gave a profound insight into what it means to be a practicing artist in the present day- warts and all.
Paul Johnson explained himself that he is often described as a painter. But in fact what your looking at with his work is collage. He has an incredibly labour intensive practice whereby painstakingly each element is hand-cut; hand coloured and then intertwined to create a painterly image. This work is what Johnson is probably most well known for, although it wasn’t so much this work he talked about, it was the journeys that lead him to produce these works which he spoke of most and which I found incredibly fascinating to hear.
The honesty of Johnson gave him a remarkably likeable factor. He spoke of a time in his artist career where he had just returned from America and he found himself living in Gloucestershire, UK, he felt he had completely shut himself out and said he thought to himself “I just don’t want to do this anymore!” He was referring to collage here, however many artist’s like myself will probably agree that we often think this statement over and over, not sure in which direction to take or whether to carry on the practice at all. He made me realise that self doubt is ok. Questioning your own practice is normal. He joked about getting a little crazy. Told us he began to grow a rather long beard, scraped collage altogether, and began making all sorts of strange string puppets. It was after this temporary state that he returned to the states. Whilst out with friends in an American diner he had a personal breakthrough- so he called it. Bizarrely the breakthrough was actually just a plate of fries which fell to the floor and Johnson remarked – “Hold on a second- that looks like a house!”
After the initial sighting of the house in the French fries, Johnson began creating these images rekindling his love for collage once again. It was these images of seeing something within something that led Johnson to go onto doing an MA. He was anything but boastful about this achievement. He laughed as he told us “I couldn’t believe my luck!” Accompanying this achievement was another of his fantastic anecdotes. He explained that when entering the interview room he took off his coat, flung it round in the air, aimed somewhat for the back of the chair and somehow it landed right in position there! He seemed more than impressed by this stroke of luck- which no doubt his interviewers were too.
A while after this time, a few years into his making after MA, he was sent an email by Charles Saatchi himself asking to buy a piece of his work. He in turn thought it was a joke. He explained that the email sender was something as obvious as Saatchi@hotmail.co.uk- where he comically responded- “Yeah right.” His honesty describing this experience was so endearing. Other artists may have kept this quiet. It’s something we certainly don’t think about when we look at a piece in the Saatchi. We don’t think about its past life in the studio; the artist’s troubles with it, the work done beforehand, the mistakes, the draft versions. We just think; as an artist in the Saatchi, like someone commented before the talk- “He must be big, he’s had work in the Saatchi.”
What became clear as Johnson spoke of his relations with Saatchi was that his confidence was building. When he finally accepted that this indeed was the real Charles Saatchi he didn’t just succumb to his demands. He negotiated with him until unbelievably Saatchi eventually said- “What will it take?” Johnson held his ground and told him he needed time to create the body of work. He wanted to create a community of people. He explains this community as fiction. The figures, using his process of collage, are a combination of three elements sourced from found photographs. One section used in “Sister” was in fact the body of his wife. This inside knowledge is something I find particularly enjoyable about the live lectures each Thursday. Its knowledge you can only acquire through listening to an artist talk intimately about their work like this.
Strangely, without knowing before the artist talk, I saw this body of work made for the Saatchi back in 2011. I saw the British Art Now show whilst I was on my foundation course. Rather disappointingly I hadn’t noticed they were collage; in all honesty I hadn’t processed them into my long term memory at all. It was him himself talking, explaining his woes and worries of being an artist that I truly admired more than the exemplary work itself. It was his patience and understanding of the art world that left me in awe. As artists we are all going through the same motions. Life as a practicing artist is hard but it’s important to know that we all have those moments; moments of clarity and moments of insanity.
The live lecture is held each Thursday in term time, in Lecture Theatre 2 at 17.15. The lecture is open to the public, to join the mailing list please email: ART.firstname.lastname@example.org