With dedication, concentration, and a self-admitted obsession with perfection and hard work, British painter Ben Johnson creates detailed photorealistic paintings of architecture and cityscapes that require an enormous amount of effort and time to complete. Born in 1946, Johnson has been focusing on architecture as a subject matter for over 50 years, and has even collaborated with architect Norman Foster to create depictions of his buildings (for the first Venice Architecture Biennale, 1991). Though widely known, especially for his large-scale, mind-bogglingly realistic panoramas of cities like Hong Kong, Liverpool and London, Johnson’s work resides mainly in private collections; that is why the current retrospective of his work at the Southampton City Museum and Gallery is such an important event for the artist, since it’s the first time a wider public can see so many of his works together in the same space.
To achieve the accuracy observed even in the minutest details of his paintings, Johnson follows a process that involves drawing, multiple layers of stencilling and meticulous colour-mixing. The sheer effort and time required to complete these paintings is put into perspective only when one listens to the artist himself describe his process: in a recent BBC documentary, Johnson explains that no less that 25 layers of stencilling were required to complete a single column in one of his elaborate Alhambra palace paintings, and that it took ten people three years and approximately 60,000 hours of work to complete the monumental Liverpool Cityscape painting (2008) noting that if a single person were to do the same amount of work, it would have taken them 17 years to complete the massive five-meter-wide painting.
What strikes us most about Johnson’s paintings is their flatness: even though they depict densely-built urban landscapes and the elaborate geometry of real, three-dimensional spaces, their details are rendered with the same care and clarity whether they are in the foreground or the background. This elimination of distance and acute perception of a vast area depicted with the same intensity is something that the human eye is normally unable to do (only the eye of a god or some superhuman entity could possible take all this detail in with a single glance). It is therefore perhaps no coincidence that one of Johnson’s more recent undertakings is the study and depiction of sacred geometry in Islamic architecture, in turn an art that consciously aims to reveal the limitations of human perception and the vastness of the natural world —and therefore, God’s own infinity. Through their overwhelming detailing and unthinkable amount of labour required to complete them, Johnson’s paintings give us the opportunity to step out of our normal perception of time and space, and become, even if for a moment, divinely omnipresent.