January 2008, Paul Johnson interview at the Camden Arts Centre.

 Paul Johnson, Sister, 2006, Hand coloured paper on board, 72 x 45 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the Saatchi Collection.

WM's Wiebke Gronemeyer meets Paul Johnson at the Camden Arts Centre.
December 2007.

Paul Johnson, born in 1972, is an artist from London who has exhibited widely throughout the UK and abroad. His work is framed by an interest in outsider art and visionary art, of which he has also acted as a curator.
His work at the Camden Arts Centre further investigated the relationship between belief systems, ideas of family and community. For his new detailed collages he used a number of motifs such as costumes, logos and other paraphernalia that are linked to cult activity, such as banners and insignia used in political or faith-based marches. His work re-contextualises these ideas and thus phrases their meaning, through a method coming close to a dissection, providing new possibilities for other connotations and interpretations.

Wiebke Gronemeyer: You say that your works are paintings, but the technique you use is more one of creating collages. What is it then in your works that makes them paintings?

Paul Johnson: I call my work paintings, where maybe technically they are collages. I reduce the collage to such a flat plane that they start talking about the language of painting. I hand-cut every tiny piece of paper and hand-colour each piece using a coded system. These codes have a life of their own, showing some kind of internal logic that allows me to construct these paintings. I find brushes alien objects and have always wanted to find a new way of constructing a painting.

Paul Johnson, Brother Benedict, 2006, Hand coloured paper on board, 72 x 55 cm. Copyright the artist.
 Courtesy One in the Other.

WG: Your residency at the Camden Arts Centre is about to come to an end. You explained to me that you didn’t necessarily have to produce a product to finish with. Rather, you said, the fact of not working in your own studio gave you the possibility to develop a new kind of work, entering another period in which you are interested in as an artist and how you develop a constant state of flux within your work.

PJ: Being given this opportunity for a residency at Camden Arts Centre has given me the chance to compartmentalise my practise. There was no deadline for finished work. For the past two years I have been making a new body of work, which was commissioned by Charles Saatchi. I had to put really strict deadlines on this work, so as to finish it. The labour intensive quality to my work means long hours and 7-day weeks. So the chance to work in a supportive environment like Camden gave my practise a new chance to breathe and allow new ideas to flow. The residency was the chance to realise new ideas of objects that relate to the portraits I've made.

Paul Johnson, Girl, 2005, Hand coloured paper on board, 64 x 40 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy One in the Other.
WG: In your work you visually create a moment that could be the beginning of a story, you place a trace by referencing other signs, figures, maybe symbols in your paintings (i.e. the girl’s t-shirt). There is a potential in your works, which the viewer can gaze at when relating the paintings to each other. Are you interested in the viewer’s interpretation of your works, in how a story can be further developed?

PJ: For the past few years I have been constructing a family of people. These portraits are based in relation to the idea of family, not by blood, but family, meaning a sense of togetherness and shared ideologies. I leave a space for the viewer to add or make conclusions about this family. I think fundamentally the viewer can't help but project their own ideas onto these people in these portraits. These constructed people belong to some sort of club/organisation and I like the idea that the viewer is allowed to peer through the club-house window and wonder what this group might be up to, but can't join them.

WG: Prior to the actual production of your paintings, I see you oscillating between on the one hand observing the reality, collecting some found objects here and there, by mere chance; as footnotes to every-day-life, in whatever way it might be organized. You also create your characters on the basis of found images in newspapers and magazines. On the other, at the same time, I think of you as slipping into tracing those elements and how they can actually play their parts in new stories. Also, you literally collate different parts of the body together, until a new person is created. What kind of game are you playing?

  Paul Johnson, Guide, 2007, Hand coloured paper on board, 70 x 70 cm. Copyright the artist. Courtesy of One in the Other.

PJ: The portrait of the women on the wall (Guide) is a construction of fact and fiction. She is made up of a found image, a found costume and a photograph I’ve taken. The conclusion of this collaging is my attempt to create a new person, who has the potential to exist. Hovering above her is a constructed aura, where her personality exists. ( (This is in fact three portraits in one. The person in the portrait is passive, allowing for her tiger logo to be possibly an animated portrait and then her silver constructed aura is a symbol of her contained personality. You called me a pirate earlier....with the idea of someone going from shore to shore collecting objects from their travels and stories to bring these objects I find into some sort of reality. That’s exactly what I am doing mentally by collecting and projecting onto these found images and objects.

WG: There is a notion of equality in your work when you re-contextualise found objects, which maybe were totally irrelevant in the context they previously belonged to, i.e. the shell you found in India. You make them an essential part of your paintings, although you do not introduce them physically. Does this imply an attempt to criticize the apparently democratic but actually hierarchical system of power on which our every-day life is organised?

PJ: A while ago, the artist Alain Miller, said to me that to make a good painting, you need to be a funnel. He said take everything you’ve got and push through this funnel, you’ll create your own goo that way. I liked him for saying that.

For further information on Paul Johnson and the Camden Arts Centre please visit:

Wiebke Gronemeyer WM London

Wiebke Gronemeyer is an independent curator and art writer based in London and Hamburg.
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EMAIL: wiebkeg@hotmail.com

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