Ben Johnson: Time Past Time Present at the Alan Cristea Gallery
Ben Johnson’s art has, since the beginning of his career, focused on the ornate, exacting two-dimensional reproduction of three-dimensional space. His paintings are intricate, representing with photorealistic clarity famous interiors and exteriors with a precision that would rival Paolo Uccello. Mute and pristine like an architect’s schematic, his renderings of manmade landscapes are unpopulated but nevertheless permeated with the space’s relationship with the humans who inhabit them. The atmosphere vibrates with an uncanny air, similar in feeling to the art of Vilhelm Hammershøi, as if something is about to happen that would disrupt the suspended stillness.
The Alan Cristea Gallery in Mayfair has just opened an exhibition of the latest of these incredibly detailed canvases. Johnson’s love of the representation of the minutiae of architectural adornment finds full expression in the neoclassical furnishings that characterise his Museum Rooms. Three of the five pieces on display feature interiors from the recently restored Neues Museum in Berlin. The rich frescoes and the many different marbles that colour the walls and floor are reproduced with machine-like perfection; the artist has revealed that, in his later works, he has utilised computers in order to create the ever-increasing detail of his paintings. Like an old master’s studio, his art, in its almost maniacal desire to capture every classical moulding and every baroque ogee, is realised by way of assistants – sometimes up to 11 – in order to try and record, like a map, every feature. Such an aim has achieved mind-boggling results in his paintings of the Alhambra palace in Granada. The exquisite inlay of the calligraphic signs and Islamic symbols that decorate its walls have all been faithfully reproduced. The amount of detail, all picked out by the bright lighting of the space depicted, is too much to take in, but inspire – as in all his paintings – a sort of meditation, like the intricate matrix of a mandala or the silent, spiritual atmosphere of a holy sanctuary.
That same mood is also present in Room of the Revolutionary that reproduces the scene of the face-off between Mexican police and the Serdán family prior to the outbreak of the Mexican revolution in 1910, now preserved as a memorial in Puebla. The appeal of Ben Johnson’s art lies in its lovingly exact reproduction of such recognisable spaces, thus rendering his work enjoyable for architecture buffs and art lovers alike, as well as the general public.
Ben Johnson: Time Past Time Present is at the Alan Cristea Gallery until 7th June 2014. For further information visit the gallery’s website here.