Art as concrete metaphysics

My aim is to produce a contemplative art with a simple presence but the density one associates with poetry.
My central subject is the experience of being.

The self and the world cannot be separated: they are a single experience. The world arises in us and the solid world is saturated with our meanings, fears and dreams. The heart of my work is an attempt to embody this basic condition of our existence.

In my works since 1984 one element is usually a container, a found, man-made object which can also suggest a human body (a bath, a boat, a bed). The other element is often immaterial: a sound or slide projection for example, usually taken from nature.

In this actual and metaphorical relationship, inside and outside are made to invert and contain each other. They suggest at once both a human consciousness and the world it is conscious of. Sometimes, more recently, the two, superimposed worlds create a deconstructed illusion; an imagined light in the darkness.

I think of the components of my work as ready-mades, though some are mediated, as simply as possible, by film or tape recording. The way the two or three components in a work collide produces the substance of the piece.

This formal simplicity means that mentally you can take the work away with you. My tendency to think metaphorically (or metonymically) makes it function like poetry made of objects. The reality toughens and anchors the poetry.

I like ready-made and archetypal elements because they can function like units of meaning, bypassing concerns of how things are made or represented. Also, since no physical transformation has taken place, the viewer becomes conscious of being involved in the creation of meaning.

Art doesn't make meanings so much as shape an autonomous space for them to inhabit. There we can experience meaning at its moment of being born in things.

My work arises out of an awareness of death and the endless void under the thin crust of being. I am an artist because of death: art is an attempt to step outside time. The moral problem is how to react to this void. Whatever the solution it must be made out of what already exists in the world.

Postmodernism asserts the loss of any unified authority for ideas and beliefs (including even a unified self). From this flattening-out it concludes that authentic depth is no longer possible in genuinely contemporary art. We are supposedly left only with irony, surfaces and sensation.

A degree of irony is inescapable but it has become too easy. Might it be possible, without denying the void beneath things, to create a fiction which adheres to reality, an imaginary wholeness, a willed ghost that can persist after belief has become impossible, arising out of the simple act of being and imagining? A more profound irony.
Things can have depth but their depths are in us; in the recognition of depth in us: that our relation to the world is not transparent.

The sense data of the moment are only the starting point of perception. Perception, even at its plainest and most bereft, is an act of the imagination. I find this world of the "not-visible" more interesting than the surfaces that may invoke it, though always we must start from and return to the hardness of Things.

Art is concrete ontology (and a little epistemology gets dragged in).

Time and death, the marriage of the visible and the invisible, of matter and spirit (or imagination or desire): these are a few of the things I hope may find a home in these works.

Centrally, though, they present a human presence: not the presence of another person but the experience of oneself; in the world but looking into oneself.

David Johnson
from Imaginary Light, 2000