Interview with Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson was speaking at his home in London on 9 January 2008.


Tell us about your studio team and their importance to the way that you work?

At one time I would have brought in assistants to back me up and to execute things that I hadn't got time to do. On The Liverpool Cityscape I've matured in my use of the studio and recognised the interdependence and the individual talents of people that I employ. From the beginning I had a vision that had to be realised. To do that I needed talents which I neither had the time nor ability to master and I brought in people with their own skills. We came together as individuals contributing to one goal. I became the coordinator and on many occasions I accepted images or solutions that I wouldn't have come up with on my own. I have learnt from each of those people and feel humbled by their skills and willingness to work as part of a team. Without them I couldn't have achieved the end result.

The computer-driven cutter that you use seems to have revolutionised the way you work. Would a painting of this scale and complexity have been possible without it?

Yes, but if I look at the hours that have been put into this painting it is approximately 18 years - without the aid of the technology. If I add the technology, which has done all the cutting of the stencils, we could multiply that by five. The painting could have been realised but nobody would have taken it on. We can leave the studio at the end of the day and leave a machine cutting, a form of intricate cutting that we could never possibly have done, not without going blind or crazy.

Why did you accept 'The Liverpool Cityscape' commission?

It was the realisation of a dream to make paintings - cityscapes - that had a social relevance, paintings that would be put into a public arena where the people of the city could interact with the finished object.

Do you feel part of an historic tradition of artists recording cities?

I am not a recorder of cities or a documentary painter. I am obsessed - and it may seem strange - with people above and beyond everything else. Historically there have been people that have recorded cities but many of them I don't really want to be associated with. I use architecture as a symbol of people's ambitions and conflicts and questioning of society. I believe I'm part of a growing group of people that are questioning the nature of cities and an understanding of cities as being an understanding of the individual operating within society.

The city is about people and Liverpool is about people and that's all that matters. The painting is for the people of Liverpool to stand in front of and give their voice to all those lonely, deserted streets that I have portrayed in a slightly surreal atmosphere.

What role do you feel the Residency at the Walker Art Gallery will play in the creation of the painting?

From the very beginning the Residency has been the cherry on the cake. It's been the possibility of offering my work up for criticism. For some it'll just be a 'fancy' picture. For others it may be an opportunity to discuss areas they know and love and consider what the city of Liverpool means to them. It could be, I hope, an object for argument, where some people may say, 'Why on the earth has somebody wasted three years making something that could have been a photograph?' As long as they discuss it, that's the most important thing. Above everything else I would like it to just spark a little bit of curiosity.

How important were your visits to Liverpool, taking in the city's atmosphere and speaking to local people?

I had a pre-disposition to like Liverpool. I grew up in north Wales, then in Chester and my very first experience of a museum was the Walker Art Gallery. And it was in the '60s. People of my generation were starting to lead the world with their youth and arrogance. My first experience of exciting contemporary life was the Cavern club. I'd also seen the very dark side of Liverpool after the war and during the Thatcher government. I saw social depravation and injustice. The streets were not the most pleasant places to walk round.

I now go back to Liverpool and in the three years I've been visiting regularly I have seen a pride and energy. There were always the jokes, strength and independence but now there is a confidence and optimism.

All of my experiences have been of meeting warm and generous people. They're very inventive and proud people. My great ambition for 2008 is that the Liverpudlians' existing pride is deepened by the smiles of the people that visit Liverpool for the first time, reinforcing their own awareness that they're living in a very special place.

What does it mean to you to be working at the Walker Art Gallery and to have your work in the gallery's collection?

I'm not really sure that this isn't still a dream and I'm not going to wake up and somebody's going to say, 'Only joking.' I can remember one coach journey from Chester Art School to Liverpool and we were talking about our ambitions as young art students. I arrogantly said I'd love to have my work in a museum one day and my friends fell about laughing. To think that I've actually got work not only in a museum but the very museum I was travelling to that day is utterly astonishing.

You sometimes manipulate or move buildings to make them visible or more prominent. Are you catering for people's expectations?

If you undertake a view of a city you have already taken on an enormous amount of artistic licence because you're filtering it through your own personality, philosophy and views. For The Liverpool Cityscape there are very simple changes and I haven't made many. In Liverpool culture is out on the streets, it's in the football stadiums, it's in the sun parlours. It's a very broad culture and that's what I love. I am trying to respect the people of Liverpool and I wouldn't want to leave out some very important symbols, like the 'Three Graces', the Metropolitan and the Anglican Cathedrals. But we mustn't forget the Greek Orthodox Church and the Synagogue. Chinese culture is very significant - I've raised, just slightly, the arch into Chinatown and I'm putting in the very first Muslim prayer centre. I'm still sure a hundred people are going to tell me I haven't put them in, and I am sorry.

Did you aim to depict the city at a particular time of year or day?

The time of year or day didn't really matter. The photographs have been taken almost on a 12- month basis throughout the year. I've tried to choose a light between 12 noon and 8 o'clock in the evening with a light coming from the south and the south-west. I've painted Liverpool always in a very strong light, often more like a winter light that and is very cruel and telling. Each building is picked out almost in a spotlight. Superficially the painting could look slightly bland because I've got no large areas of shadow, no clouds going over and that's a risk. Artistically it would have been much easier to make a dramatic painting by putting it in a dramatic lighting situation. But I wanted to throw an equal amount of light on every building so that people can find a little bit of their own history in a pool of light.

Did Liverpool emerge as having a particular colour palette?

It did. Sandstone is very important for the city. Liverpool is dominated by the Anglican Cathedral on the right and the city is built on the edges of Cheshire, on sandstone, clay, red. The red is important but alongside it there is often a grey sky over Liverpool. The architects of Liverpool have also worked well with blues and cold colours. Within the studio there's a joke that I've made it a pink and blue city. They say, 'Do you think the people of Liverpool will like this much pink?' It's not pink, it's sandstone.

Were you nervous about tackling a city that provokes such passionate feeling from its citizens?

No, because anything that doesn't create a passionate feeling shouldn't exist. We all need passionate feelings, so I warmed to passion.

Are people's reactions to 'The Liverpool Cityscape' important to you?

They're very important. I don't mind if people don't like the painting. I would like people at least to respect the fact that I've made the best effort I can in my own limited way. What I've most enjoyed are the people who have been enthusiastic about the painting. Even if they haven't, if it's moved them enough to talk about Liverpool and their own experience, then that's given me the satisfaction. I get no greater pleasure than somebody telling me that that's where their parents were married, or a story about the city. The people of Liverpool are good story-tellers. I would like this to be a springboard for a thousand stories.

What were the challenges of painting a city that had so much development going on in it?

It's a continuing problem. I'm within two months of finishing the painting but there are certain very significant areas in the foreground, and therefore they're very large, that still have question marks hanging over them. It's not through lack of commitment from the council, the architects or the developers. In 2008 there is some economic uncertainty. Are certain buildings going ahead or not? Can I leave the foreground of the painting as an undeveloped building site? That wouldn't do justice to the city. What risks should I take? My painting is not a capriccio, a fantasy. It may be an alternative view but it's meant to be based in reality. Do I leave buildings in or out? It's a difficult decision because I know that my painting is to last several hundred years. There are many discussions still to be had.

Your photographs of Liverpool form a remarkable visual resource in their own right. What do you see the future of these as being?

The archive is enormous. There are two archives in a way. One is the archive of the city that was essential to make the painting. Then there's the archive of the making of the painting. For the first, I've walked each street that I have represented within the painting taking photographs; not the artistic type that some photographers might, but if we put them all together it's a very useful document for understanding a city at an important point of change in its physical development.

The second part is the drawings. Every single building within the Cityscape has been reconstructed involving an enormous amount of artistic input. They are beautiful objects. I don't know what's going to happen to the archive but I think it should be kept together. I don't believe that there is any single painting in the history of art that has ever been so well documented in its manufacture.

The Cityscape will eventually hang in the Museum of Liverpool, a museum of city history. Does it matter whether it hangs in an art gallery or a social history museum?

There is a story I quote often. Somebody once said to me, 'I know you. You're Ben Johnson the painter.' I replied, 'Yes. I didn't realise anybody knew me.' And they said, 'Of course I know you, your work is extraordinary.' I responded, 'Thank you. That's very kind of you.' Then the person said to me, 'No, I didn't say I like the work. It's extraordinary.'

I'm conscious that I've devoted three years of my own work and 40 years of experience into making this painting with my team. This is an 18-year painting. I would like anybody to stand in front of it and say, 'What an extraordinary work.' Some people are going to walk away and say, 'I don't like it, but it was extraordinary.' Others will use it as a way of remembering Liverpool or having their own view of the city reawakened, rekindled, formed. I would love children to stand in front of it and for it to become part of their heritage, part of their memory of childhood.

What was the biggest challenge of working on this project?

To get it finished. To try and realise my concept for this big view of Liverpool. The problem's been seeing the idea through to the end without compromising on my initial ambition.

How do you feel about 'The Liverpool Cityscape' now it's nearing completion?

It's the good, the bad and the ugly. The ugly bit is my inability to deal with very serious social issues. The picture is too pretty in many ways, too clean and pure. My painting is one of many views of the city that say 'Liverpool is an important place.' It's got important individuals with equally important lives, whether it's a simple, humble life or a grand, loud life. All I've done is to show the shells that the snails have left behind but it's the snails that are living and breathing and crawling.

Have you enjoyed working on 'The Liverpool Cityscape'?

It's been wonderful. People say, 'How can you go into the studio for three years knowing exactly what you're going to do every day?' Each day brings a new challenge because every single part of the painting is unique in its own right. Every day's work has been like making a new painting.

Do you feel you've done justice to the city that you've seen?

No, I haven't. It's a dismal failure because the people are what make Liverpool. I've already referred to the snail and the shell. Mine is the empty shell, which may have some decorative value. It's what's alive inside the shell that matters and I hope I have offered a catalyst for involvement.