Punking Up the Old Masters

Antibes, summer 1975. A 12-year-old Alexander Johnson is on a camping holiday in the South of France with his parents and elder sister, and they’ve made a trip to the Picasso Museum.

“I looked up a stairway, and saw Picasso’s statue of the bull’s head, made from a bike saddle and handlebars. I remember the way the light hit it and cast a long bull-like shadow on the wall. I was mesmerised by it. When it was time to leave, I was still there, looking at it. They had to drag me away. My mum has recently reminded me of this.”

He had always loved drawing, but this was an epiphany. “I decided that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be an artist. I bought some pencils and paper in a shop in Antibes, and spent the rest of the holiday drawing, sat on the floor of the tent.”

Nearly forty-eight years later, I’m sitting across the table from Johnson, now 59, in his spacious, purpose-built studio in the beautiful garden of his enviable Laughton home. Sun floods through the windows, illuminating the work on the walls, a series of head-and-shoulders portraits, clearly inspired by Velázquez, with a very modern twist. There is a faint smell of turps in the air. He is preparing a new series of work for a solo exhibition in June at Arundel Contemporary Gallery. He’s wearing a white felt hat with black splodges, Hockney-like glasses, and a blue hoodie. Looks every inch the artist. He’s clearly achieved his childhood ambition. But, as I’m about to learn, it hasn’t come easy.

There was another epiphany a couple of years later. The Johnsons lived just outside Chichester, at the Fiveacres Garden Centre, run by his parents. Young Alexander, obsessed by music as well as art, had taken to copying his favourite album covers. “The first one I did was a bit of a disaster,” he says. “Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. It was too high-tech, all those prisms. Then I bought the first album by The Clash. Stripped-back photocopied images, with touches of spray paint. I thought, ‘well I can do that’, and it was much more of a success. I realised: you don’t have to paint like Rick Wakeman plays his music; you can paint how Joe Strummer plays his music. Three chords and all that. That was a lifetime lesson.”

For a while, Johnson, “like all the friends I had,” played in a DIY punk band of his own, The Gargoyles, and organised gigs in local village halls. He gave up when he got a place on a foundation course in Worthing, a positive experience. Not so his next step, three years studying fine art at Cardiff University, which was “all very macho: all the teachers were blokes and into German Expressionism. If you didn’t paint like that, they weren’t interested in you.” Things took off when he discovered the print room. “A teacher called Phil Jennings taught me how to make silkscreen prints. He never said what he didn’t like about your work, only what he liked. I could work very quickly, using very bright colours. In a few days I could produce a six-or-seven-colour print that looked like a poster for a band. I had found my medium.”

Next up, of course, a stint in London. By 1985 Johnson had come out, and was living in a “gay house-share in Wood Green.” Like many of his generation he’d learnt a left-wing brand of politics from reading the New Musical Express, his “cultural and political bible”. “You’d read an interview with Joe Strummer or David Bowie or whoever, then you’d go to the library to follow up all the references they’d made, whether that was about the Spanish Civil War or Lotte Lenya or Otto Dix.” In London he became involved with the Gay Rights movement, and channelled his art into promoting the cause. “It was the time of Clause 28. I went on every march. Met Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien. It was very inspirational.” He got a job at Channel 4 in Charlotte Street, where he had the good luck of landing a role looking after the photocopiers, which gave him the opportunity to reproduce images, which he then funnelled into his art practice. “My rucksack was so full of my own photocopies, sometimes, it was hard to cycle up the hill home.” He was influenced by Keith Haring and Basquiat, “and all that New York stuff” at the time. “Silkscreen on canvas, built up block by block into a bigger picture, like Gilbert and George have been doing for a while.”

Pretty soon, another move. “Before the election in 1987, I told all my friends: ‘if Thatcher gets in, and Clause 28 gets passed, I’m leaving the country’. Both things happened. So I left.” He pitched up in Barcelona in January 1989, the day Dalí died, and became a TEFL teacher to support himself, working on his art in his bedroom in a flat in Tibidabo overlooking the Sagrada Família, hanging out with “dancers, anarchists and artists. There were a lot of disillusioned Brits about.” He met an older guy, a Dutchman called Henk, in a bar off the Ramblas, and moved again, in the autumn of 1991, to Henk’s hometown of Nijmegen, where, for the first time, he started living entirely off his art. “Henk was very on it. He helped me get my own studio, and organised exhibitions of my work. I had three solo shows in Holland in three years, and sold a lot of art. At one point I needed a new passport, and in those days, you had to write your profession on it yourself. I said to Henk, ‘what should I write, I’m not a TEFL teacher anymore’. He said ‘write artist, of course. That’s what you are’. And I realised, of course, he was right.”

If this article were a biopic, it would need a low point at this stage, to keep the viewer’s attention. Johnson’s low point was a severe depression. “I’d always had a bit of that, but this was a real bad moment in my life. I started visiting London more frequently. When a friend of mine from art school committed suicide, I decided, for some reason, it was time to go back. I was really mixed up. I didn’t medicate. My relationship split up, and I left this really lovely burgeoning art career. I also left all my artwork in Holland. I had no reputation in England, and this was before the internet, when you could carry your reputation across borders. It was an act of self-sabotage, really.”

For 15 years or so, art took something of a back seat. He got a job selling magazines in the art section of Dillon’s bookshop in Covent Garden. When that went bust, he moved to Brighton, and worked for the South Downs Housing Association, teaching people with learning difficulties. “My work was very rewarding, and I learnt a lot from it, about how to communicate, simply, with people who were sometimes completely non-verbal. I learnt a lot about myself, too. But when I was doing art, I realised that I was merely repeating stuff I’d already done. In 2010, I made a pact with myself: for ten years I wouldn’t create anything with faces in it. I’d go more abstract. It really got me back on the horse.”

Johnson’s father, Don, was very ill, dying of cancer, so he decided to work on a project that drew them closer together, before it was too late. Don Johnson had joined the RAF during WW2 and become a Spitfire pilot, working in reconnaissance, taking photographs of installations in Portugal, Spain, Algeria and occupied France and Holland. Later, he was billeted in Bonn, and told to visit the newly liberated concentration camp in Belsen, to make a report. “What he saw in those two hours ruined his life,” says Johnson. “He was never the same again. When I was young, he needed to drink half a bottle of rum to get to sleep, woke up at five in the morning to dig in the garden to banish the demons. He later gave up drinking, but always struggled with sleeping. Like many people after the war, he very rarely talked about his experiences.”

Johnson remembered his father showing him, many years before, photographs he had taken from his Spitfire, and he decided to use these as the basis of a series of semi-abstract silkscreen prints. Elegant, blocky pieces, 45 x 45cms, in three to six colours, generally titled after the towns or building complexes his father had photographed: Huelva; Alhambra; Salamanca; Tangiers; Barcelona, fittingly enough. Pilot, which was used on posters to publicise the show, was rather different. “A criss-cross of black strokes on a blue background to represent the Spitfire from above, and a blob of green in the middle to represent my father in the cockpit. Don didn’t really ‘get’ abstract art, and while he appreciated what I was doing, I wanted him to connect to it more. I showed him the piece, and asked him to try to work out what it was about, while I went and made a cup of tea. When I came back, he said: ‘yes, I was very green at the time, wasn’t I? Very clever.’ He was just 19 when he flew that plane. Can you imagine?”

The series was a success (six of the prints were exhibited at Towner Eastbourne) and, in effect, rebooted Johnson’s career. In 2016 he moved with his partner Alan to Laughton, and soon discovered a nearby ex-WW2 airfield, Deanland, built to launch Allied fighter planes in the latter stages of the war, and still used privately today by flying enthusiasts. This became the inspiration for his next series, which was exhibited in 35 North Gallery in Brighton in 2018. While preparing for the show, Johnson was shortlisted for the Jerwood Drawing Prize.

A number of series have followed, as the artist, ensconced in his new studio, has hit a happy rhythm, and found a consistent new voice, abandoning screen-printing in favour of works produced using charcoal and oils on canvas. The photographer John Brockliss spent a lot of time between 2016 and 2018 recording Johnson’s art practice at Deanland, and a show of both their work was exhibited at Farley Farmhouse (home of the surrealist artist/photographer couple Roland Penrose and Lee Miller) in 2019. Another 35 North exhibition, Guernica/Gernika, displayed his response to a visit to the Basque city, bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe in the Spanish Civil War. Brave City (2022) marked the start of his relationship with Arundel Contemporary, featuring paintings inspired by the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, and its aftermath, based on stereoscope cards he’d found in a junk shop.

Like many artists, the Covid crisis gave him time to further reassess his practice, he says. In lockdown he made a charcoal drawing every day based on an Old Master painting, and posted them on Instagram. He had over the years collected a library of art books, and decided to “give myself the sort of RA education I had always wanted. At art school I was shown how to work with Perspex and video, and taught about Duchamp and Bauhaus, but the Old Masters hardly got a look in. I had always loved the work of Velázquez, Rembrandt, Titian, Tiepolo, Zurbarán, van Dyke, Rubens – all working in the same period, isn’t that amazing? – and wanted to give myself a deep education of their styles and methods, all very different from one another. I wanted to explore my relationship with these paintings which I have known all my life, which have become almost like family members. I’m looking at them, and they’re looking back at me, and I’m trying to work out what’s in between.”

“Take Velázquez’s painting of his assistant Juan de Pareja, originally a slave from North Africa,” he says, gesturing towards several of his own paintings on the wall, of a dignified bearded figure. “My series is my response to Velázquez’s original painting, which I’ve always loved. I can see so much personality in the portrait: a mixture of pride and satisfaction and wariness and many other traits. Velázquez – because he’s a genius and I’m not – gets all that in one painting. What I’m doing is unpicking them, and redoing them, one layer at a time. I feel I could paint this same painting over and again for ten years, and still be happy, because there’s so much there.” He wonders if the Spanish painter toned down the “African-ness” of his sitter – to whom he granted freedom, and who went on to have a painting career himself – and in one painting, has reimagined him with an Afro hairstyle: “like Juan de Pareja as a Brick Lane DJ”.

“What I’m doing now,” he continues, “is combining the ten years of abstraction with the long history of my figurative work. I like the way they rub up together. I like keeping the paint and the colour very brutal and basic, and slapped on. And then the sophistication and subtlety of the charcoal drawing – I think it makes a nice clash.”

We get to talking about the continuing influence of the punk ethos on his work, and he goes to his extensive vinyl collection – there are about 1000 LPs neatly stacked on shelves at one end of the studio – and pulls out the sleeve of The Clash’s first LP, such a formative influence, to show me what he loves about it. Then he pulls out Marianne Faithful’s Broken English (he knows exactly where it is stored) to push his point. “There’s a wonderful mystery to it. Is she upset? Is she just altering her hair? It entrances you. And the tip of her cigarette, with that single touch of red, is just genius. It keeps you guessing for the rest of your life. And that’s what I’m trying to do: to give people half the information. And leave them wondering about the other half. You don’t want to give people everything: you want to give them little bits of something, and invite them to work out the rest. This is why a good painting never gets boring.”

Johnson, I’m not surprised to hear, paints to the sound of music. “I played the Sex Pistols the other day – very loud – but it’s usually instrumental music so the words don’t interfere with the narratives I’m creating. Steve Reich, Django Reinhardt, Miles Davis, Debussy, Poulenc, Ravel. And more modern stuff: Portico Quartet, Four Tet.” In his sketchbooks are photocopies to work from: “I don’t do sketches anymore; I paint and draw straight onto the canvas. I know how to do a face after forty-odd years, I don’t need to practice, and I don’t want to lose that initial fervour and energy you get in the first take. Before I start painting, I skirt the canvas for ten or twenty minutes to get into the right frame of mind. And then I think ‘let’s do it’, and I do it. I work fast, very fast: it amazes me how long it takes my artist friends to produce their work. I don’t tidy up lines or mop up drips. Sometimes drips are what the work hangs on. It’s like an antidote to the digital image.”

The June show at Arundel Contemporary is called Nexus, “which means ‘connection’, obviously. I was in Arundel after visiting my mum a couple of years ago, and I went into the gallery and Maya [Coppen, the director] was there, and when I told her we were following each other on Instagram, she said: ‘I’ve been meaning to message you.’ She’s great to work with because she’s an academic and knows a lot about the history of art, so we can talk about that, and she always gets what I’m saying. And she’s very good at matching the work with the client, it’s rather like the old gallery system was in London in the 60s or 70s, or how it still is in New York.”

Before I leave, Johnson takes me round the paintings hung on his studio wall, that he’s been preparing for Nexus. Several of Juan de Pareja, as I’ve mentioned, two portraits of the Infanta Margarita, imagined in later life, and a couple of takes on Zurbarán still lifes. Next to one of these is a pinned-up quote from the film-maker Jim Jarmusch, which starts: ‘Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination’, and ends: ‘In any case, remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.’’

After nearly three hours in the studio, disturbing, I imagine, Alexander Johnson’s artistic process, I take my leave. As I walk out the garden gate, my head full of cultural references and visual memories, I wonder if I’ll hear the music start up on his stereo, before I’m out of earshot.

Alex Leith


Alexander Johnson: Nexus

Sat June 3-Sun July 2, 2023 | Open daily 11am-4pm, closed Wednesdays

Arundel Contemporary Gallery, 2 Maltravers Steet, Arundel, West Sussex, BN18 9AP



  1. Alexander Johnson in the studio
  2. African Man in Lace Collar #2 (after Velázquez), 2023. Oil and charcoal on canvas
  3. Sten’s Tattoo, 1993. Silkscreen and oil on canvas
  4. Pilot, 2012. Limited-edition silkscreen on Fabriano paper
  5. Canvas Town 1906, 2021. Oil on canvas
  6. Confidante (after Velázquez), 2023. Oil and charcoal on canvas
  7. Sun-drenched Princess (after Velázquez), 2023. Oil on canvas
  8. Lemons on a Silver Plate (after Zurbarán), 2023. Oil and charcoal on canvas