James Johnston, a veteran rock musician, has blossomed as an artist (The Economist Jul 29th 2019by D.B.)
The quality of his paintings has surprised everybody, himself included
A COUPLE of years ago, friends and acquaintances of James Johnston noticed a change in his social-media activity. Mr Johnston is a highly accomplished multi-instrumentalist who, in addition to leading his own band, Gallon Drunk, since 1988, has been a key collaborator or performer with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey, Faust and Lydia Lunch. Mr Johnston customarily used his Facebook account to relay information about his touring schedule: where he would be playing, and who with. He had started posting images of paintings. At first it was paintings he had seen in whichever museum or gallery he had taken the chance to visit in that day’s city, as is his habit. Then it was paintings he had created himself. The remarkable thing was that, without Mr Johnston’s captions, it would be unclear which was which.
There is a long tradition of would-be artists making a success of pop music, but the reverse is rare. Plenty of musicians dabble in visual art but few produce anything of great merit: if their work gains attention, it is chiefly because of their celebrity. Mr Johnston is not a celebrity—though he is admired by many followers of alternative rock—and it was immediately apparent that his work was of a different order. He has a remarkable gift for loose, raw, figurative painting, often infused with macabre humour and arresting colour, which straightaway imprints itself upon the viewer’s imagination.
He discovered this gift, if not inadvertently, then through force of circumstance. Popular fancy may depict the life of a touring rock musician as a whirlwind of orgiastic intoxication, but it tends towards the mundane and businesslike, and it involves a lot of downtime in hotel rooms. Mr Johnston was on a two-year tour with PJ Harvey in 2016 and 2017, when, by his own account, “I was challenged to do a picture a day after a conversation in an airport about drawing, basically to alleviate boredom in hotels, but also just to see if I could do it. I started painting small-scale in my hotel room every morning, and very soon realised that it was exactly the sort of escape I’d needed; it felt fresh, and I became lost in it very quickly.”
Some of these small pictures can be seen in Mr Johnston’s first solo exhibition at the Stash Gallery in London. They are varied and vivid things, showing an artist quickly finding his feet. “Dancers at the Black Eagle” has a light, fleshy eroticism, while the scrawled black lines of “Mardi Gras” pick out a sinister trio. These compact works hang alongside 30 much larger paintings from the recent studio practice to which Mr Johnston has devoted eight hours a day, and the juxtaposition reveals he has maintained the discipline required for those first hotel-bound works. The controlled palette of each picture contrasts with the exuberance of texture and brushstrokes—which, for all their wildness, always seem to land exactly where they need to.
That instinct is important. Mr Johnston had not painted since leaving high school, and has had no formal art training since. But it would be a mistake to see him an outsider artist. He is interested in and informed about fine art, and has long associated with visual artists. His work betrays his influences—such as Edvard Munch’s haunted faces, Weimar-era expressionist grotesquerie and the anthropomorphic dogs of Keith Haring—but never pastiches them. The paintings that hang in this exhibition would not have looked out of place in the Nazis’ notorious collection of “degenerate art”, nor would they have been found wanting in their proximity to so many modernist greats.
Mr Johnston’s creations are for the most part discomfiting, funny and idiosyncratic. They are often populated by eerie masked or skull-headed figures (human, beast or both), looming from what might be fire, fog or thick black smoke. “Figure in Water”, the exhibition’s main image, depicts a seemingly male figure surrounded by darkness, its lower half submerged in delicate malachite-coloured ripples, its upper half incandescent white, as if composed of burning magnesium.
That one of the most striking new painters should have begun his career as a 50-something hobbyist already established in another artistic field is an unexpected development, not least for Mr Johnston. He initially took up painting for no reason other than to paint. The purity and pleasure of that urge are evident on every canvas.
A Gothic Tale of Such
By Radmila Djurica
James Johnston, guitarist from the US band Lydia Lunch and Big Sexy Noise, ex Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds member (between 2003-2008), P.J.Harvey’s partner in music presents generally a good, dark, misty, scary music genre. We are dealing here with the very broad meaning of “agreement for harmony in qualities between people.” Certain critics in sympathy with at least the critical side, of such a theory, advanced in cases and if we find it intellectualistic, we tend to change the feeling of desire, aspiration, admiration etc…An English musician James Johnston has got talents.
As a painter at the moment, there is an exhibition of James’ paintings in London at CHARLIE SMITH Gallery. It is a group exhibition that includes James Johnston’s work presented as words that transform, vibrate and glow: 13 paintings inspired by the lyrics of Nick Cave. The exhibition was conceived over a year ago to illustrate Cave’s latest album, Ghosteen, and released with a painting as Cave’s cover for the album in October 2019. “Painting is a far more solitary pursuit, and after many years of touring probably why it was so attractive to me as it means I can work every day, the hours needed, without having to constantly travel,” says Johnston.
“I try to think about absolutely nothing and get lost in the process. Classical music at very low level in the background. It’s as much of a thrill as a gig, except it lasts eight hours or struggle and excitement. Leaving the studio at the end of the day can be a bit like the feeling you have when you walk out of a cinema after watching a film. It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done, and it’s all performed locked in a room on your own. It’s a strange, frustrating and thrilling process, about as close to a dream state as I can imagine,” he adds.
I cannot avoid defining my sympathy as such an intellect that does not freeze the ardor of generous desire and paralyze creative endeavor. And for the sake of argument, the intellect may become critical, unproductive. Sympathy is here for the art that alternative, indie, and gothic musician and painter James Johnston represent.
Remember famous “Scream” by Edward Munch: a certain ability to conjure apocalyptic landscapes, the songs on “Ghosteen” by Nick Cave as visions. James Johnston is a musician, a painter and an actor who had his role in the film directed by legendary gothic film director Ken Russel, is having his say via his music and paintings just the same. He seems like someone who is just like Russel in his film “The Fall of the House of Usher (A Gothic Tale for the 21st Century)”. In the long career of being an artist, he makes success in music and manages not to become a celebrity and not to be deprived of privacy. As just an artist, James is simply admired by many followers of alternative rock and admired as a gifted painter for raw, macabre humorous, haunted by Edward Munch kind of paintings, which strikes upon as a powerful imprint in the imagination. And, in the combination with music collaboration with Nick Cave, P.J.Harvey or L.Lunch he definitely rocks to indie music fans.
James Johnston also reveals his thoughts on Bauhaus..
-Could you tell us your thoughts about the band Bauhaus? We are here on their pages, one of the first gothic bats of rock and roll.
“I saw Bauhaus play Guildford Civic on the In The Flat Field Tour, same week I saw the Birthday Party play a fantastic and under attended gig at Guildford University, I was about 15. A very exciting time for music, especially at that young age. I moved to London at 18 and saw bands like The Gun Club, Swans, Sonic Youth etc, it took a while to start my own band, but seeing a lot of live new music at the time was extremely inspirational. “
James Johnston has an upcoming solo exhibition at Schaeffers Gate 5 in Oslo which opens on May 7th, with further 2020 shows in Den Haag, London and Berlin.
Images courtesy of James Johnston