In the studio: Alan Johnston, artist
'I was extending an ever-present engagement with the creation of shadow'
Friday 06 December 2013
Alan Johnston works in a studio backing on to the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. Its inhabitants have included British artist William Brassey Hole, best remembered for his large processional frieze in the Scottish National Gallery. "Hole designed the studio for himself. He had a thing for large paintings – large easel paintings. It is quite church-like. It is for height."
Johnston only moved in seven months ago and he has not fully unpacked. A few paintings in his rigorous, minimal style hang on the wall, made with his favoured materials – pencil and beeswax.
Tate Britain director Penelope Curtis recently commissioned Johnston to make a work for the refurbished Tate Britain. Tasked with choosing a site, he opted for the ceiling in architect Bruno Taut's vaulted space in the basement. "Taut's big thing was crystalline form, alpine form. One space that is interesting is the cellar with the strange, almost medieval vaults."
Johnston's team worked alongside the construction workers; it took five weeks and 12 people to finish. Johnston prefers to work alone but there was not enough time. His tools included a clutch pencil with a hard lead to deal with the ceiling material. He relates how he was in Budějovice in the Czech Republic and was told by the architect he was collaborating with that Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth, the pencil factory, was nearby; he asked if they could make him a special hard lead.
Johnston is not new to collaborating with architects. Many of his works, drawing-based and minimal in concept, are site-specific and made alongside partnering architects. His subtle interventions draw attention to architectural features, such as the spaces above in the case of Taut's ceiling: "I was extending and further developing an ever-present engagement with the creation of shadow."
Born in 1945 in Edinburgh, Johnston teaches at the University of Edinburgh. He is a softly spoken man who counts many of the world's great artists as friends. Facing his creations, I have been observing how light plays across the surfaces, illuminating areas of interest. A simple pencil-line drawn from one end wall to another recalls the horizon, and the work of other great minimal painters. Johnston's quiet intervention at Tate Britain may not be in your face but it will probably be the most harmonious, fulfilling his determination: "A quiet and appropriate dialogue of forms."
Alan Johnston, Bartha Contemporary, London W1 (barthacontemporary.com) to 15 February
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
- 5 The most powerful passports in the world
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Sherlock series 4: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have to be 'persuaded' to return, says Steven Moffat
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
Oldest footage of London landmarks released
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election