John Johnstone – Visual Diaries

Our first exhibition in 2018 is a solo show with one of Scotland’s leading figurative artists, John Johnstone. Born in Forfar in 1941, John studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art from 1959 to 1964 under David McClure and Alberto Morrocco. He later returned to
teach life drawing classes to a generation of artists such as Joseph Urie, Ian Hughes and Michael McVeigh who have gone on to forge their own successful careers.

His early work was influenced heavily by the work of artists such as Soutine and Kokoschka. When John combined these influences with his fascination for the human figure, a distinctive and powerful style emerged. This work was concerned with death, social injustice and inhumanity in complete contrast to the fashionable styles encouraged at the time. Two of these early pieces are in the current show and mark a strong contrast to the more light-hearted caricature paintings that he is well known for today.

Following art college, John had a number of critically acclaimed exhibitions in Dundee and London. His first show at the Alwin Gallery in Mayfair in 1966 contained work from his Post-Dip show, “full of anguish, suffering and a desperate acceptance of the absurd”, wrote Conroy Maddox the English surrealist artist in the Art Review. His second show, again at the Alwin Gallery, a year later, drew the attention of the London based writer for the The Scotsman, Robert Macdonald, wrote “The paintings in his first show had a nightmarish violence about them that was disturbing, but the expressionism is now becoming more coherent and controlled and his work is gaining painterly qualities which make it evident that he is an artist to be watched.”

At this promising part of his career John seemed to lose his way. In a letter he wrote “My seven years as an angry young man are over.” – he found it increasingly difficult to paint in this disturbing, expressionistic style.

However, a retrospective exhibition at the Tate of work by Edward Burra proved revelatory and provided John with the inspiration to forge forward with his painting once again. Now more controlled and less expressionistic, John’s work became more illustrative allowing him to add more detail to his work.

Around this time the printmakers workshop started up in Dundee. Being an insatiable drawer, John found etching to be the perfect medium to accommodate his imaginative narrative and fantastical caricatures. These etchings remain an important and popular part of his work today. We have a number of new and older etchings in this show.

John’s work has continued to be more illustrative, indeed he admitted that he probably should have followed a career as an illustrator as his real love has always been drawing. His drawing skills are evident in all the work on show in this exhibition from the beautiful line in the unusual “Conjoined Twins” from 1965 and the busy fantastical etching “Dream City” to the keenly observed visit to a modern art exhibition in “Shark Tank”.

Expert draughtsmanship, wonderful observation, a good dose of humour and an unremitting desire to create; John Johnstone is an artist to be admired.

The exhibition kicks off with an opening on Saturday 3rd February from 2-5pm where you can meet the artist and runs until the 25th February.

Most of the information on John’s career I found in the book, “John Johnstone” written by his brother Bob Johnstone with an introduction from the art critic Edward Lucie Smith, is also available during the exhibition.