David Johnson is a maker of installations, usually using objects with projections or simple light. His chief concern is with the nature of reality and the experience of Being: that is to say, the ambiguous relation of world in the mind to the world in itself, which philosophically is the conflict between idealism and realism. To explore this he has found a series of metaphors of form. This concern has become allied with a desire to get beyond the emotional and intellectual flatness of much post-modern art but without returning to the past. This was tied up with a need to find a basis for a sort of spirituality which could coexist with his reluctant atheism.
He originally studied Architecture at UCL and worked in architectural offices in London and Australia, when he also wrote poetry and made art, particularly his own extension of monoprint. However his first experience of conceptual art in 1975 decided him to become an artist because it gave him the beginnings of an idea of how he might go beyond it to deal with his own deeper concerns.
On returning from Australia in 1976 he went to Byam Shaw School of Art and then did an MA at Goldsmiths. His discovery there of Arte Povera confirmed him in what he was already starting to do. From 1979 he showed his work three years running at the ICA New Contemporaries,
His early approach at art school (for example in My Father Blind and Dying), and again more recently, was to focus on the invisible, or rather the not-visible.
He found his mature style (for example in Secret Sea and Cloud) in the mid 80s, and then the later 90s, with work which internalised an external world (or perhaps embedded the internal into the material world), often using boats, baths or beds as ambiguous body substitutes. Between these dates when he might have been trying to become known with this work he was ill and produced little.
A third generating metaphor which produced a series of works - notably around 2000 but beginning with Eclipse, over a decade earlier – involved the creation with slide projections of the appearance of non existent light sources (for example in Facing the Dark and Imaginary Landscape No.2).
In 2001 he had what promised to be a break-through one-person retrospective at the London Roundhouse, which attracted what Stephen Foster called an ecstatic response from critics and public and large attendances. However partly due to the loss of his studio and a period building a studio complex, largely by himself, he failed to follow this up. His temperamental aversion to networking and pushing his work forward has not helped.
Following a show at Dilston Grove and various mixed shows in England, France and Germany, his second major retrospective in 2007 (over 4 months in 5 galleries, disused theatre and storage spaces at Dean Clough, Halifax) was twice chosen by the Guardian newspaper for their Exhibitions “Pick of the Week”.
This show included some of his new pieces, some of which reverse the process of his last series by negating the effect of a real light source – sometimes literally painting it out. This is a sort of anti-painting, starting with something and ending with (seemingly) nothing. These pieces (for example Trying to imagine not Being) explore the border between existence and non-existence. He also showed his first piece with computer, creating a simple context of mortality (one day and a hundred years).
After again losing his studio and having nowhere to make his work for a year he is now creating again.
David Johnson’s work has provoked strong reactions from audiences – often including tears, and certainly is intended to deal with the human condition. However it is often not recognised that it has required him to innovate formally. His pioneering or early use of various common objects has also been obscured by their subsequent common employment by others.
One critic has described his work as Romantic, though he doesn’t see it that way at all. Certainly it is often dramatic, but this is a by-product of other intentions. Most of all it is seen as spiritual, which might seem ironic, coming as it does from someone who believes in nothing beyond this world; but actually is a reflection of his wish for depth and his desire for a sort of god-deprived spirituality. As he says himself: The metaphors tend to cut both ways.
A number of essays have been written about his work – for example by Asa Anderson ( http://www.axisweb.org/dlFULL.aspx?ESSAYID=79 ) and he has also written about his own work, for example in the magazine Vertigo ( http://www.david-johnson.co.uk/realityanddepth.html )
“All literature consists of an effort to make life real” said Pessoa. But equally art which is material, and so seemingly part of life, can make reality’s immateriality, life’s creative fiction, open up within the appearance of matter. (DJ)