File Note 27: Paul Johnson - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Michelle Williams




Stranger’s Refuge Images References Quote Biography Credits

Stranger’s Refuge

MW I’d like to start by looking at some of the characters that are emerging in this room, particularly the title of this residency: ‘Stranger’s Refuge’, and you’ve talked to me about the idea and the concept of family…

PJ Slowly but surely, I am constructing a sort of family of people …  I don’t mean that in a personal sense but just like everyone is interconnected in some shape or form, not through blood maybe but through some sort of shared ideologies, or some sort of shared togetherness.

MW Maybe it’s quite interesting to try and get to the heart of your process. You’re allowing objects that you find in the everyday, that have a resonance, and you’re allowing them potentially to have a transformative quality in your work.

PJ  I think everything I’m attracted to, or intrigued by, has the possibility of transformation in it. 

MW Like the portrait titled ‘Self-Healing Soldier’ who is very slowly coming to life on this table.

PJ Someone here brought me a cutting mat … and on the front of it, it says Self Healing Cutting Mat and I was going to call this portrait ‘Soldier’. I liked the idea of putting those two things together , suddenly it was ‘Self-Healing Soldier’. It just seemed like a nice title, like if someone was hurt, could they heal themselves?

MW  It’s a very specific way that you make: how these characters actually come to life, not just through the process of construction, but actually the found objects that play a part in their creation.

PJ Every portrait or every person that I choose, there’s a passiveness to them. What I’m trying to do is to construct some sort of abstract language to convey their personality. To show some sort of feeling that they may be having, so as to express some other quality about them…and I think that’s why these paintings have a schizophrenic nature: two things happening at once. In my mind, the personality has almost been sucked up into these objects that are floating around them.

MW Can we talk about the banners?

PJ Absolutely, I started to think, what would happen if these people started making objects, what would they make?

MW So, you’re moving from the physiological construction to the character components of these subjects?

PJ Yeah, basically. Again, this sort of natural form of collecting objects just suddenly pushed me in that direction.

MW I was thinking about an exhibition which was here a few shows back; Hilma Af Klint: An Atom in the Universe.  In which we see the idea of an artist who I would say had an internal logic, but who would also claim that the work is not made with her own hand but that of her spirit guide. I like the idea of the responsibility of the work currently being passed on to some other entity and one thing you have written down is, ‘Please, Someone, Pilot Me’ — and that to me is a kind of guide or spirit guide. So there’s this idea of devolving responsibility over to someone else. Again you’ve written: ‘Eliminate Your Presence’, almost an egoless production.

PJ I’m doing a residency here and so there’s an enormous amount of change going on, on a day-to-day basis, both mentally and sometimes physically. I’m making a banner to go with this portrait, ‘Self Healing Soldier’, and I kept thinking I wanted a picture of this guy from an old photograph I found on it. And so I basically asked some people to do a few drawings of this guy, because I kept thinking, well if I was a fan, or an admirer of that person and I wanted to make a banner in celebration of him, how do I do that? So I’m starting, bit by bit, to break it down and give over some things and allow other things to come in.

MW I think it would have to come back to that idea of receptivity and the fact that you’re receptive to the signs around you.

PJ I think if you’re looking and you’re intrigued by certain things, you’ll basically find them. If you’re trying to find them, you’ll probably find really obvious connections.

MW The artist as seer … I just want to say one last thing that I read on your wall, which I think might be a summing-up term from your own words: ‘Sensitive Chaos’.

PJ It’s from a Rudolf Steiner book.

MW There you go.

PJ If I’m honest, I’m very deeply influenced by his way of thinking. Not in the written word, but more in his blackboard drawings which visualize and articulate ideas of presence, of yourself and other presences that are around you.


Walter Kugler (Ed.) Rudolf Steiner Black Board Drawings 1919 - 1924 Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003, ISBN 1855841525

JD Salinger Franny and Zooey Penguin Books, 1994, ISBN 0140237526

William S. Arnett, William Arnett, Lowery Sims, Jane Livingston Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Vol. II Tinwood Books, 2001, ISBN 096537663X

Beyond Reason: Art and Psychosis – Works from the Prinzhorn Collection, Hayward Gallery, 1997, ISBN 1853321583

Priya Mookergee Pathway Icons: The Wayside of India Thames and Viewing lisHudson, 1987, ISBN 0500274282

Stacy Peralta (Dir.) The Search for Animal Chin: Bones Brigade Video III 1987

Philip Gröning (Dir.) Into Great Silence 2005 

Werner Herzog (Dir.) Bells from the Deep 1995

Mahalia Jackson The Power and the Glory Columbia Records, 1960

Marion Williams My Soul Looks Back Shanackie Entertainment Corporation, 1994

Odetta At the Gate of Horn Universal Music, 2006

‘ Please, someone, pilot me.’ Paul Johnson


Paul Johnson was born in 1972 and lives and works in London. He was awarded a BA in Painting from Glasgow School of Arts in 1996 and went on to earn a MFA from the Royal Academy Schools, London 2003. Johnson creates intricately detailed collages constructed of hand coloured shapes. Next to his subjects are often otherworldly symbols, suggestive of organised belief systems and apparitions. In 1998 he travelled to the Vermont Studio, Vermont, USA for a residency. Since then he has exhibited both internationally and in the UK. Group shows have included 4th St Petersburg International Biennale of Contemporary Art, 1999; Tal Ester, Tel Aviv, 2004; Le Consortium, Dijon 2005; Rockwell, London 2005 and ‘Future Primitive’ at One in the Other, 2005 which he curated. He had solo shows with One in the Other, London in 2003 and 2005. In 2008 he has a solo exhibition at Mizuma Gallery, Tokyo. Paul Johnson is represented by One in the Other, London.


Michelle Williams is an artist based in London. She is currently studing for an M.Phil/PhD Fine Art at Goldsmith College, University of London.