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EDITORIAL

EPIFANIO RECOMMENDS

RARITIES IN MY RECORD COLLECTION
Rhythm Doctor

A FEW WORDS ABOUT DIGITAL GRAPHICS OF SINDY ILVES

FIELDS AND OPPORTUNITIES
Mait Vaik

PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST. JUKA KÄÄRMANN
Mehis Heinsaar

INTERVEW WITH JÜRGEN-KRISTOFFER KORSTNIK
August Künnapu

SHAKING OFF THE SHACKLES OF PREJUDICES IN ART
Vilen Künnapu

LIFE AND WORK OF KALJO SIMSON
Helen Kooviste

INTERVIEW WITH JAMES JOHNSTON
Harry Pye

TEAM

INTERVIEW WITH JAMES JOHNSTON

James Johnston

James Johnston in his studio. Photo: Richard Barr

James Johnston was born in England in 1966. For 30 years he’s toured the world with various bands including Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, Faust, and his own group Gallon Drunk. Recently James has begun to turn his attentions to painting. A year ago he was on tour with PJ Harvey and began to make work in various hotel bedrooms. Over the last few months Johnston’s neo-expressionist paintings have been exhibited at Gallery 64a in Whitstable and at The Art Academy in London. Harry Pye visited James in his studio to ask him about his views on art.

Do you think painting made you happier or given your life more meaning?

I try to paint on a daily basis, around seven hours a day from Monday to Friday, as at the moment I’m able to. I enjoy getting lost in the process, so when I lock the door to leave I do feel as if I’ve been somewhere, maybe the same sort of feeling you can get coming out of a cinema. I don’t know about having more meaning, but occupying that time in your imagination is certainly pleasurable, even when it’s been a frustrating day and more of a struggle.

Are there any paintings you made from a year ago that you now dislike or feel embarrassed by? Or are all your paintings like your children?

I think that anything I’d actively dislike was destroyed at the time or painted over. I worked a lot on paper a year ago and there are piles of them in the studio but I hardly ever look at them. Looking back at an older picture usually more reminds me of what was happening at the time I did it, or where I was (if it was painted before I had the studio). The naivety or failure of some of them isn’t exactly embarrassing, after all - it’s just me looking at them, more just part of a line of work that has its inevitable ups and downs, and how certain failures of frustrations often then led to subsequent better pictures. It’s worth remembering what went wrong sometimes.

Is there a perfect level of fame for an artist - should an artist (unlike an entertainer) not care about money, fame, and Likes on Facebook?

A good level would be to have sufficient support to work as much as you can or need to. Having someone show enthusiasm for your work can spur you on too, help get you over endless hurdles of self-doubt. But regardless of all that, the act itself can still be a transportative thrill, if only for a moment even if no-one’s going to see it, enough to drive you on. However we all need to eat and materials can be expensive, so selling work can make a world of difference. But I think it also depends on the artist in question, and what they need emotionally to carry on, or what they ultimately want out of it.

Are there any contemporary painters making work like you - who is a kindred spirit?

I see a lot of kindred spirits out there, amazing artists I admire and whose work is a thrill to see - but whether or not their work is like mine is another matter, and I’ll probably only inadvertently offend someone if I say their work’s like mine!

You have an interest in Folk art / Art Brut - paintings that are often funny. Is it good if a painting makes you laugh or is it a sign of a bad painting?

Lots of paintings make me laugh, including quite often my own. Surprise, humour, bafflement, wild incromprehensibility, unexpected boldness and a singular view you’ve never considered - all these things make me laugh, and not because a painting is “bad”. The surprise of the unknown or unfamiliar. Mostly though, the folk art that I like has a directness and lack of guile, gets to the centre of things and is full of heart.

What is art?

Rather a big question! An intentional mark or object created to cause emotional or spiritual response in the viewer. A creative act of self-expression that becomes universal by being viewed by someone else. Something out of nothing, a depiction of the human psyche? I’ve no idea. Equally as hard to work out is what isn’t art. My favourite art is probably the cave paintings in Lascaux, France - but I’m sure it’s arguable by someone, that could be bothered to do so, that they aren’t technically art by definition, so maybe it’s also a subjective thing.

Did your family home have art on the walls / were you taken to museums - what was the first art work that had an impact on you?

We had some fairly normal stuff on the walls mostly, apart from paintings by my grandmother, which were wonderful. She was self-taught, and usually painted on board, and often very large. Fantastic landscapes based on holiday photos, portraits of dogs we’d met, flowers, pictures of toys come to life, they were all over the house. Beautiful pictures that brought life to the walls.

I remember going to the Hayward for the Picasso’s exhibition in 1981, probably with my mum, which I remember being very exciting, and the first big exhibition on my own was German Art in the Twentieth Century, at the Royal Academy in 1985 - when I was 19. Mostly as a family it was places like the Imperial War Museum, The Tower of London, and The British Museum, which I also loved. Probably the most exciting was going to the Tutankhamun exhibition as a small child in 1972 - the whole experience was so thrilling, the queues, the security, and then the incredible and magical looking exhibits. I would have been about 6 years old. Beautiful and strange objects taking you to another world you couldn’t understand.

HARRY PYE
is a writer, curator and painter who lives and works in London.
See also his postcards from London, São Paulo and Leeds in previous issues of Epifanio.