The following is a piece written in light of Glenys' show being held at Temple this August - September
Rembrandt took the wings out of angels
I am all that I see, I am an intersubjective field, not despite my body and historical situation, but, on the contrary, by being this body and this situation, and though them, all the rest.”
.― Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
Every painter paints from memory since the act of painting must always follow the act of seeing. Our memories may be distorted, coloured by personal prejudice, but the dream-memory may prove to be more accurate than the original event. If all the past is lost: perdu (as Proust claimed) then it can also be reclaimed (recherché) through traces and clues embedded in the past. For as T.S. Eliot said in the Four Quartets ‘only through time time is conquered’.
Glenys Johnson is an artist’s artist. One deeply respected by her peers but not as widely known as her subtle and thoughtful work deserves. Since her days at the Slade her practice has been touched by historical and social issues. Photography has always provided both source material and metaphoric potential. Early on newspaper photographs were appropriated as a means of investigating not only social systems and hierarchies but time and transformation, perception and memory. Often the images chosen represented ‘another place’, an imagined locale rather than bald fact. Locations such as Derry, Manchester and Berlin resonated, for the London based Johnson, with philosophical ‘otherness’ that allowed her to expand ideas beyond limited definitions of a particular moment in history. In her 1986 work The Ground You Walk On, the blurred figures hover against the blank ground as if isolated by a telephoto lens. While CQBR (Close Quarter Battle Range) a drawing of a civil war town in West Germany used for training troops for employment in Northern Ireland, resonates with a sense of the uncanny and an implicit threat of violence.
The maps of the mid-to late ‘80s based on cities such as Moscow and New York are webs of tension and anxiety, created by a process that uses pigment, binder and photo emulsion. The embedded ‘photographic figure’ – an urban flaneur perhaps, or person of no fixed abode - suggests those rendered invisible and pushed to the margins of society. Whilst Forest, an ambitious installation conceived for the Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst in Munich, created a potent image of disorientation. A traditional trope for the unconscious, the forest speaks not only of the loss of individuality but the spaces between the trees suggest potential danger and the disintegration of something harmonious and whole. Perception, here, is not fixed but evolving and fluid. For as Merleau-Ponty writes: “All thought of something is at the same time self-consciousness [...] At the root of all our experiences and all our reflections, we find [...] a being which immediately recognises itself, [...] and which knows its own existence, not by observation and as a given fact, nor by inference from any idea of itself, but through direct contact with that existence. Self-consciousness is the very being of mind in action.”
For the exhibition at The Middle Temple there’s a new body of work. In his essay on Translation, Walter Benjamin notes that an original text: “… stands in the closest connection with the original by virtue of the latter's translatability. Indeed, this connection is all the more intimate because it no longer has any significance for the original itself.” Translation is an apt metaphor for Glenys Johnson’s new work. Her use of the monotype parallels the process of the photographic print as it emerges from the developing tray, turning a static object into a complex matrix of ideas. Floating against the empty ground the image acts as metaphor for the birth of the creative process. Taking as her starting point Patrick Gries’ photographs from his book, Evolution in Action, which traces billions of years of development in more than 250 vertebrates, along with a pamphlet of poems by older women artists and women in prison, entitled Older Women Rock, Johnson has created a series that obliquely talks of female disenfranchisement. Flipping, surrealist-style, through the dictionary she discovered that the words Power and Poverty were on the same page. Skeletal forms, both male and female, were then superimposed, to hover like ectoplasm, over these dictionary texts and interwoven with biological drawings of primitive forms, created by Johnson’s naturalist daughter, Rosa. This series of subtle juxtapositions raises the question as to whether male dominance is a natural part of our biological evolution or a social construct.
The rich architectural heritage of the Temple Church inspired another body of new work. The Gothic floor tiles with their winged horses, a symbol taken from the early Knights Templars, was melded with a flying fox from Gries’ book to create the hybrid image Rembrandt took the wings out of angels. It’s as if this cross fertilization of mythical creatures – neither of which can actually fly – is striving to find a new sense of being and purpose. Things dissolve to be reassembled as different truths, emerging like something half-dreamt or fleetingly caught out of the corner of the eye.
A word in a language we don’t understand carries an aura of implicit meaning, a trace similar to a homeopathic dose, beyond literal truth. Using a variety of words in different scripts, all of which mean Peace, Johnson has created a series of word-symbols that emerge like shadows from veils of possible meaning. Elsewhere the hybrid image of Aung San Suu Kyi, paired with that of a black swan, transmutes into a Madonna-like set of hands that suggests mourning and loss. These works, with their shifting relationships between subject and object, demand intelligent and sympathetic engagement from the viewer. For in a world where nothing can be taken as a given, these paintings function as proposals and propositions rather than as didactic certainties. What they, in fact, provide is a junction to pause, a space in which to explore ideas about perception and memory. Though Johnson’s work belongs in the tradition of painting with all its formal concerns, painting is simply one of a number of tools at her disposal that goes in hand in hand with more contemporary technologies. The result is a sensitive, intelligent body of work that not only investigates the process of making art but the sociological, the philosophical and the personal.
Johnson does not expect to arrive at an understanding of the world from any fixed starting point. For as Merleau-Ponty explains: “Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act… it is the background from which all acts stand out and is presupposed by them… Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being”. In our fractured, postmodern society where all meaning is fraught with imprecision, Glenys Johnson provides us with metaphors for a new set of realities, for what the late John Berger spoke of as ‘ways of seeing.’
Sue Hubbard is a freelance art-critic, award-winning poet and novelist. Her new novel, Rainsongs is due out from Duckworth early in 2018. www.suehubbard.com