Tim Johnson brings together punk energy with aboriginal spirituality at Ikon

By Mark Sheerin | 12 December 2013

Exhibition review: Tim Johnson - The Luminescent Ground, Ikon, Birmingham, until February 9 2013

Painting of a buddha figure floating on a blue background with a host of mystical details
Tim Johnson in collaboration with Daniel Bogunovic, Shakyamuni 2 (2012)© Tim Johnson. Courtesy the artist.
It is fortunate that avid collaborative artist Tim Johnson follows the Dalai Lama. Since, as this show at Ikon attests, there is an ego-less roll call of names behind his mysterious works. These include famed aboriginal artist Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Hindu expert Nava Chapman, West Coast painter Daniel Bogunovic, and infant sons Leo and Dion to name but a few.

In a corresponding sign of an open mind, plenty of influences also feed into his work: from Buddhism to punk via recreational drugs and ufology. That said, the theme which has made the biggest impact on the Australian artist is the indigenous spot painting of his native land.

These small white marks, so close as to almost but never touch, make Johnson’s mature works shimmer with the heat of a relentless outback sun. He learnt the technique at the Papunya settlement in the Northern Territories and, for a time, got on so well with the locals he became a Tjapaltjarri by name as well as technique.

Painting of an aboriginal artist sat cross leged against a red background filled with meaningful motifs
Tim Johnson, Clifford Possum (2002)© Tim Johnson. Courtesy the artist.
The onetime punk has drawn dangerously close to hippiedom and, after his brush with aboriginal art, Johnson took to painting dream landscapes where tribespeople build fires and figures from eastern religions hold sway. Bob Dylan and Richard Johnson pop up. Rimbaud is here too.

The most potent of these pulsating and mystical works is a darker piece with restricted palette, Revelation. In this epic scene, buddhas proliferate and disappear into smoke as if the painting itself is burning up as a devotional offering. It is a potent piece of iconography.

Like all Johnson’s work, Revelation sucks in the gaze and sets you roaming free. But nowhere is this tendency, inspired by Chinese painting, more pronounced than in a series of desert scenes which include Linda Siddick, CPI, CPII, CPIII, CPIV and JW. Here you’ll find a simplicity of both style and intent, as the artist draws you through the picture, with a series of winding paths, from foreground to back.

The collaborations come in many forms. Set against Johnson’s hazy figures and psychedelic colour washes, Chapman paints the focal point, say Krishna, with illustrative precision. Bogunovic paints UFOs in sci-fi comic style. And the artist’s kids provide footprints in the monumental work Walk Through, clearly painted on the floor, suggesting another influence: Pollock.

But thing weren’t always so beatific for Johnson. He has painted fifty scenes from the Sydney punk scene in New Music, 1979. You can almost still get high off the enamel paint fumes. Once again there is plenty to take in but the black and white palette speaks of reportage rather than fantasy.

Another oddity is the series of installations which Johnson executes far and wide from Cambridge to Singapore. There are countless photos of these, each with a typed record. And the art itself is slight, a scratch on a wall, some tape on a tree. This dry conceptual in joke is a long way from Papunya.

No one will fail to spot the differences between Johnson’s early and later work. His career has been, to use that debased term from reality TV, a journey. And he would be a fascinating subject for a biography. If anyone doubts the narrative potential, just look at one of the later paintings. It is rare for an artist to end up somewhere so beatific.
  • Admission free. Open 11am-6pm Tuesday to Sunday.

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Visit Mark Sheerin’s contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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