Paul Johnson: Teardrop Centre

What happens when the studio moves into the gallery? Sean Ashton on the artist’s installation at Camden Arts Centre

By Sean Ashton

Teardrop Centre, 2017 (installation view). Photo: Damian Griffiths. Courtesy Camden Arts Centre, London

Camden Arts Centre, London, 7 April – 18 June 2017

Paul Johnson’s project at Camden Arts Centre began with ostensibly drastic measures: ‘For this ambitious installation,’ reads the press release, ‘Johnson will dismantle his entire studio and reconstruct fragments in Gallery 3.’ The process may constitute an archaeology of his practice, but the results are closer to an open-cast mine. Eighteen of the 40 works scattered across the gallery are grouped together under two ensembles, listed in the plan as ‘Table top’ and ‘Mine’ (all works 2017). The latter comprises a large, irregular patchwork of colour photocopies of Johnson’s studio floor, strewn with numerous glazed stoneware casts of disposable coffee-cup lids, interspersed with six separate works, the boundaries between some unclear. For instance, Human, a paper-pulp cast of part of a car tyre enclosing a folded jumper looks like a fragment of the adjacent Tyre, a paper pulp and resin cast of a whole car tyre. The 13 works offered on ‘Table top’, a stack of white-painted MDF boards on a pinewood base, are similarly porous, the glazed stoneware casts of coins in Coins merging with those of In_, a chunk of cast stoneware bearing the plastic fascia of an iPhone and another stoneware coffee-cup lid.

Though architectural elements of the studio are included here – the door presented upright, affixed with a scrap of cardboard bearing the words ‘I AM: VERY HANGRY GOD BLES YOU’ (Studio Door) – the ‘dismantling’ functions less as a relocation of Johnson’s working environment than as a means of reexamining it. Several fixtures are mimetically reproduced. P. Copier replicates a photocopier, to scale, from recycled MDF, a pencil jammed between the lid and paper trays. Fridge follows the same method, one side papered with colour photocopies of parcel tape: a representational object that doubles as a plinth for the chunk of glazed stoneware on top, which bears, in turn, a grey Perspex motif derived from a coffee-cup lid. This ‘nested’ approach is characteristic of the show in general. Johnson moves nimbly from readymade to representation, from representation to presentational device, certain elements seeming to hover between actual and simulacral status, others appearing realer-than-real against a simulated backdrop (as with the pencil in P. Copier). If, in ‘Mine’ and ‘Table top’, studio ephemera are raised to the level of souvenirs, his best pieces go further, possessing a more totemic aura. The standout work in this regard is Server-8 & Tower-188, a column of 24 black plastic soakaway crates flanked by a smaller column of eight, housed in a heavy-duty coldform steel frame, with steel rods extending sideways and to the ceiling, terminating in flat circular motifs – enlarged variations on the symbols of the ubiquitous coffee-cup lids (the leitmotif acquiring somewhat mystical status here). Two crates made of silver-painted birchply, apparently fabricated by hand, complete the sculpture, a cross between a speaker stack and an antenna-cum-weather-vane. Arranged end-up, base-outwards, the crates’ injection-moulded openwork patterns resemble Islamic arabesques, the decorative character of functional objects revealed through their multiple deployment as building bricks.

Traditionally, material is brought into the studio, altered, sent out again; the idea of using the studio as material is not unlike that of a stomach consuming its own lining. Though the perversity of its conceit was not as visually apparent as I expected, Teardrop Centre sustains one’s attention, not just through the blurring of distinctions between raw material and finished works, or indeed by recouping existing works as raw material, but by revealing the spectrum of possibilities in between. 

From the Summer 2017 issue of ArtReview