Alexander Johnson, who painted this month’s cover for us, “treads”, he says, “a fine line between abstract and figurative art. There’s no right or wrong interpretation of an abstract piece, but this cover image was inspired by a Victorian-styled hinge – on the locked door of a hangar at Deanland Airfield – which evoked for me the old balsa wood planes I used to make as a kid. I painted a small series of these, and called them ‘Hinge-wings’. I used rolled-on oil paint to create the chalky background effect”.
Alexander trained originally as a printmaker – and, for his Deanland project, he’s used print rollers a lot. “They create this patchy effect; which looks like concrete.” And everything, he tells me, built to accommodate the thousands of troops who passed through the airfield between 1942 and 1944, was made of concrete. “In the old pub in Golden Cross the officers sat in the pub’s traditional snug bar; while a huge church hall-type extension was built on the back to house all the men.”
Deanland, which is exhibiting from this month at Farleys Farmhouse and Gallery – alongside an exhibition of Lee Miller’s colour photographs – was a project Alexander worked on in parallel with photographer John Brockliss. Alexander visited the site of the WW2 airfield where, he says, “all the original buildings had gone. I spent time soaking up the atmosphere, looking for existing shapes and motifs that would have been the same in the war years – the arch of a hangar, and so on.”
Why shapes, I ask?
“Shapes are geometric. I like them. I refine the shapes from my initial sketches until they are simplified and turn into something more fluid. Then I add my own bright punky colours that bring them up to date and grab the eye. I’m not trying to create a nostalgic sepia-tinted world; I want to get people talking.”
Alexander’s father was a spitfire pilot – “he didn’t talk about his experiences, but towards the end of his life I grilled him, and he did answer my questions, if always in a practical, factual way. He had encyclopaedic recall of the plane’s control panel, for instance.”
The paintings, prints and etchings that resulted from the project are complemented well by John Brockliss’s black-and-white photos documenting the artist at work. In one picture, I notice, Alexander is wearing a ‘Song of Norway’ T shirt. “Like David Bowie, in his Where Are We Now? video?” Yes, he smiles. “It wasn’t long after Bowie died and I was listening a lot to Blackstar. It made me want to be brave in my art, as Bowie always was.
“As an artist, you have to do your work and step away. Not worry too much how others interpret it. I always think of Derek Jarman. When someone questioned whether he might make his intentions in his film-making clearer, he replied ‘Well, I’m not spoonfeeding babies’.”
The Deanland Project is on at Farleys House and Gallery 7 April-2 June.
Matter, a weekend group exhibition featuring Alexander’s work, is at Glynde Place from 12-14 April.