Last chance to see – Ben Johnson at the National Gallery

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With an attenuated brush in his right hand, the back of Ben Johnson’s torso greets the crowd as he methodically applies miniscule amounts of acrylic paint to the canvas. We’re cordoned off from the unfinished painting, unable to approach or entirely see what lies beneath. Though “panorama” derives from the Greek “all sight”, Johnson quietly removes us from his landscape, as if beckoning us towards a window view while blocking out part of the glass himself. The ideal prospect is compromised, reminding us of the artifice inherent in landscape painting – as meticulously accurate as the artwork is, it serves to distance us from the actual scene, displacing our impressions of a place with those mediated through the artist.

Commissioned by the National Gallery to accompany their excellent Canaletto exhibition, Johnson’s Looking Back to Richmond House looks across London from the roof the gallery itself. Vast, intricately detailed and painstakingly true to life, the painting on display is the result of a lengthy, many-staged studio process. By completing it in front of his public, Johnson claims to emphasize the work behind the artwork, to affirm the ties between the artist and the draughtsman. Just as stonemasons and bricklayers produced London’s architecture, visual art emerges through labour and craft. To create the masterpieces displayed elsewhere in the gallery, the Old Masters had to get their hands dirty.

With this supposed commitment to craft, then, it’s a wonder that Johnson’s almost-finished product resembles something that’s been shrink-wrapped. In Canaletto’s The Stonemason’s Yard, whose geometry supposedly fits Johnson’s work almost perfectly, we see lowly huts and unwashed walls; even the church tower in the distance is a worn brown against the graying sky. In the foreground, masons chip at the rocks, enacting the process that will turn the rubble of the yard into a piece of art. Johnson’s London, by contrast, has been well glossed and manicured. All the blemishes – including people – have gone, creating a lifeless sterility. There’s a definite technical skill on display – the level of detail is staggering, and Johnson is a talented painter of light – but the overall effect is photorealism without the realism, a city that never wakes.

Two of Johnson’s previous cityscapes, of Zurich (2003) and Liverpool (2008), round off the exhibition. Compared to the London vista’s tight weave of neo-classical forms, these works feel almost cartographical, guides to a diverse, often labyrinthine domain. The Liverpool Cityscape was completed under the same public scrutiny as the present plan, and its success there seems routed in its function as a civil monument. The same smoothness that makes Johnson’s London sterile allows Liverpool to transcend time, to become a harmonious unity rather than an ever-evolving sprawl. And that, perhaps, is the key to Johnson’s work – rather than glorifying the process behind creation, his work denies it, airbrushing cities into gleaming tombs.

Ben Johnson: Modern Perspectives is at Room 1 of the National Gallery, admission free, until January 23rd. Don’t miss it!

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