I’m meeting with Johnny at his studio on the outskirts of the beautiful Dorset town of Shaftesbury. Its a crisp blue day. The air is sharp. I’m looking forward to our re-acquaintance. I have known Johnny for well over a decade but we’d lost touch in recent years.
Johnny’s studio is smallish, crammed with shelves and paintings, books and a desk covered with doodles and scribbles. Johnny was effusive and warm and the conversation began as if I had seen him only yesterday.
There is wonder in the slightest of things. Recognition of this is of vital importance, particularly for those who live in the realm of the creative. Stories are vital. The purpose of theWonderbook is to tell the story of the art and artist; to stop us in our tracks, take us beyond that quick glance, to stay and make us look and focus afresh. Johnny seemed to know what I meant.
We definitely have this in common. You’re looking for treasure and if you’re really looking at things, you’ll find it. I wouldn’t describe myself as an artist, painter or even graphic designer but my first job was working at this really busy, scruffy design studio. There was an Island Record label poster to design. In those days you’d have to make the picture up with magic markers to give to the client. There wasn’t any stock photography and that’s what I’ve always enjoyed doing. The investigation and the thoughtfulness of the idea.
Neighbours from Hell
I contacted Johnny because I’d seen some of his recent iPad drawings and I was intoxicated. This new, unique series was full of a sense of delight and wonder in the least observed places; those quiet, unremarkable corners of the world that we all pass so easily without pause. Johnny calls them, Little Utopias. How had this series emerged?
I was recently designing a cover for a book entitled Suburban Socialism and I immediately pictured this hallway with a nice utopian kind of sunset like the stained glass windows of sunsets on a hilltop and I thought I’ve got to do it in a Patrick Caulfield, deadpan style. It worked. I thought, I really loved doing this!
So I began taking pictures of the houses I passed on my way into the studio. Some of them are beautiful, and there’s one that’s looked after so well. I felt a real joy looking at these things.
I started to look closer, maybe because of lockdown as well, looking at things and thinking, what keeps me going? Why am I doing pictures of modern domestic houses? But the houses on the local modern estate are all a standard format and built as cheaply as possible. For everyone living in those houses, they have their jobs, they have the meetings and the deadlines…then they go home, to their refuge.
There are all these stories and lives being lived and we forget to pause and see that.
Johnny’s passion and enthusiasm for seeing beauty in the mundane, the unnoticed is energising and we have to wander outside to enjoy the air. We sit and I immediately see the real-life inspiration for one of his pieces right there in front of me, Stairway to Kevin. It really makes me smile.
Stairway to Kevin
I have come to understand wonder as being a really important ingredient in my life. It gives me purpose and direction. To find it in the work of others, to talk about it with them, is of huge importance to me.
It’s a vitamin, isn’t it?
Yeah… it’s important to me. It’s a vitamin, isn’t it? You’ve got to transmit some joy, some real laughs, you know and if your efforts are genuine, then maybe the consequences are beneficial.
Intention is everything. If you are intending to reflect the inspiration of what thrills you then the conversation goes beyond art for art’s sake. More heart and less ism.
Light in the Workshop
Yes! Although I like Patrick Caulfield’s work I always feel that there was a bit of condescension about his stuff. He was saying, ‘Oh, this is really kitsch. I’m going to draw it’ and I thought, no, I can’t come from that point of view at all. He had a sort of detachment as well. It comes out of that period of American art when Rauschenberg came along and he got a drawing by De Kooning and erased it. My mate said he saw it. He said he didn’t just do it stylishly, he completely obliterated it!
There is this TV show called The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and at the end of one of the episodes, she goes to see this artist’s work and you don’t see it, but you know it’s a blank canvas. So I thought she’s looking at that big Rauschenberg, erased and she’s gushing ‘Oh my god. That’s it!’
I guess we do that, don’t we? It’s hard to stop yourself from creating something which we think fits a market or a trend. Being influenced by the ‘big social art world’ is tricky to avoid.
Well, fortunately, I’ve never had that problem and I do mean that, without irony. A gallery wouldn’t pick me up, because I’m looked upon as just someone who has been in design and there is a school of painters, which are kind of ‘dinner party painters’, you know, they say ‘I’m so happy my studio is filled with light. It’s a place on my father’s farm!’ You see the work and it makes money because, well, it’s alright. It’s supposed to be abstract, but it’s lacking effort, there doesn’t seem to be any sort of guts or journey or anything.
H is for Holiday
While we chat, Miles Davis is playing in the background. I see Johnny’s recent posting to the #36daysoftype project on instagram. It’s an ‘H’ for Holiday, of course.We both like Jazz music and find ourselves discussing the journey that it takes you on.
The thing about jazz, is that it’s freeform, non-sequential and people have to listen.
Journeys are vital
The Wonderbook will be a compilation of journeys, routes of inspiration from beginnings to end. Introductions and maps of navigation to reveal wonder in brilliant work. I’m fascinated by maps.We have them in everything.We read a book and there’ll be an index, a map of sorts, a contents page, albums with an ‘A’ side and a ‘B’ side and track listings.We’re accustomed to navigation.We expect and need it. However, these days I think that speed and convenience outweigh that old expectation.We seem to need navigation a lot less now.We arrive… experience… then move quickly on to the next big thing. Sadly, in this modern brevity of perception you miss so much.
My idea of a perfect evening is to sit at a table with people I really like. Talking to someone, hearing their stories has such value to it. Sometimes you’re telling people stuff they might not want to know but that’s for them to decide and in a way, it’s a bit of a map because you know, one thing leads to another. I believe that happens everywhere.
Sunny Side Up 3
I'm painting again
So now I’m really keen on painting again. When I was doing that airship picture of the Hindenburg flying over Ryde beach, I needed a figure. Originally it was called Lorraine, Steam and Speed and there was this figure to the right and I thought there’s no movement, it’s not at all exciting, so I wanted a different figure. I was reading The Guardian and there was an exhibition of rare, surrealist art and there was a Japanese painter, a collage artist named Koga Harue. I followed the link to find a picture of Gloria Swanson, in a bathing suit. She’s pointing at an airship. I just have to do Gloria Swanson! It doesn’t matter if it fits or not! If it doesn’t fit, that’s so much for the better, isn’t it?
Lorraine, Steam and Speed
At the same time, I was thinking what am I going to do?, because I had two days to get it ready for entry into the Royal Academy Summer Show and if it was going to be accurate, then it had to be a certain garden layout that was authentic to Ryde. So because the date was 1937 when the Hindenburg landed in a ball of fire in New Jersey, I thought I’d stick in a David Hockney theme park because he was born in 1937. One thing leads to another and I thought I’ve only got a night to do this. So I was given these photographs of David Hockney bits and pieces, and I created a garden and then the night before I had to finish, I covered it in a kind of raw umber and black wash. So you can just about see it and then I had to paint in the grass in the morning. But it’s the disjunction that makes it. I’ve done this because you have to pay attention to the story, to the progress it has… to embrace the incongruity. It has to, doesn’t it?Well, for me it does.
So how come you’ve suddenly had a return to painting? Where did the urge come from?
I do like painting and I thought I’d like to get one into the Royal Academy Summer Show. It was nice last year because I was on the same wall as Humphrey Ocean and Paul Tonkin that I was at college with.
So I had the bug about Magritte and of course, you forget he was a graphic designer and this terrible story of when his mother threw herself in the river and it was something that completely informed his life. She was found after being in the river for two weeks. They covered her head up with the nightie that she was wearing, I don’t think he actually saw the body but he never spoke about it although you see it in works like The Lovers Kiss.
Magritte – Lovers Kiss
I remember seeing an exhibition of his work when I was about 18. I thought it was a bit dull really, I could paint a train better than that, but I realised it’s deliberate, because everything is really undramatic. The idea was dramatic but if you paint these dramatically, the drama of the composition and the expression change, you know?
You’re never going to see De Chirico’s massive 15 foot high rubber gloves in front of a colonnade, but in your mind, of course, you can, because paintings are like novels. They are things; collections of stories painted as honestly as possible with a simple and direct technique. things dramatically, the drama of the composition and the expression change, you know?
A point of stillness
So you’ve gone through this period of the Little Utopias, recognising something, a certain point of stillness and reproducing it in a very colourful and anonymous style. Now, you’re painting, avoiding emotive, painterly gestures, letting a collection of personal stories take centre stage.
Yeah, yeah, exactly because I really want to paint something like Hockney’s A Bigger Splash and that’s why I painted Every Story Tells a Picture. I wanted Magritte walking into that night-time scene because the outside is painted in a kind of gestural way. You can see all the strokes, but it’s not expressed in that way, its almost deadpan.
Every Story Tells a Picture
It was August 1967. I was working as a waiter at a hotel and I hadn’t heard the Sergeant Pepper track A Day In The Life, but coming from the radio of a nearby Triumph TR3 comes this ecstatic tune, the bit that rises like a chaotic wave to reveal the woke up, got out of bed… interlude. Unmistakably Beatles; Paul McCartney and unmistakably the song I was waiting for.
A snapshot of memory that expanded the more time I gave it to develop: the car had a metal plate on the dash which said it raced at Le Mans in 1958. The gate ofWestfield Park with its legend, ‘Qui Si Sana’ (Here One Heals) and the stag which sits on top of what we thought was a coffin.
Magritte died on the fifteenth of August. His style is reflected in the mad topiary behind the walls contrasting with the splashy technique outside. Paul McCartney was a Magritte fan and I think was inspired to name Apple Records after one of Magritte’s trademark symbols. A few confetti hearts are rising from the car and are sticking like ivy to the walls of this old Victorian Spa.
He’s had one last Gauloise, and steps through the gate under a waxing gibbous moon, going home to his Empire of Light.
It’s like a book of short stories in one painting. I really like that and what I like here is that your most recent painting is a collection of inspirations, it’s based on your admiration of Magritte and there’s a beautiful story to that. The story of the Beatles coming out at that particular time and McCartney being a Magritte fan. The inclusion of the Le Mans date and the personal memories of place, adds to the collection. Your Little Utopias are instances of noticing a single thing and proclaiming it treasure. Your paintings are like taking several, precious episodes together and creating a story… a journey… and that’s highly seductive.
Yeah and I think that’s fascinating. The iPad pictures are trying to get people to think, oh, he lives there in a little house, that beautifully kept house and the light behaves just as dramatically on this tiny, insignificant house as it does on a vast extravagant, Georgian manor!
That’s an interesting summary. TheWonderbook doesn’t exist to promote one thing over another, one creed over another, one story over any other. It’s about the story itself and empowerment of every single person. That’s its significance, importance and relevance and that’s why it matters…