Perceptions by Stephen Johnston

The first solo exhibition from the University of Ulster's star pupil of 2010

Stephen Johnston’s first solo exhibition, Perceptions is arguably the most highly anticipated show of 2011.

Since graduating from the University of Ulster in 2010 – with an unprecedented sell-out final show – Johnston has been steadily working on commissions and preparing for his debut exhibition.

And what a debut it is at the Art Tank gallery on Belfast's Lisburn Road. Johnston’s work is, quite simply, stunning. Revolving around three main subjects – objects, the figure and the surrounding environment – his style borders on the surreal. Yet Johnston manages to keep one foot planted on realist ground.

Using oils on canvas, Johnston has created a full-bodied collection of impressive artworks, and it’s no surprise to see red dots being added to some pieces before the launch evening is through.

'Steel Horse'

Having already won awards, exhibited in group exhibitions in Paris and elsewhere, and knowing that this show is a must-see for discerning art aficionados from across Northern Ireland and further afield, did he feel the pressure to impress?

'I don’t know about "wowing" the art world,' says Johnston. 'I think I first found my style probably about halfway through final year in art college, approximately two years ago, and my main focus is to make sure the next painting I do is the best I’ve done to date.

'I just love to paint. That’s what’s important to me. As long as I put my all onto the canvas, and have nothing else to give, then I’m happy. So, no, I don’t necessarily feel the pressure because I know I’ve done all I can do.'

I ask Johnston specifically about some of his paintings and why he uses certain objects in a number of works. These include a pair of brightly coloured shorts, an apple, a tractor, buckets, and a strimmer, amongst others.

'The shorts are fun!' he laughs, but goes on to explain that all the items are personal to him and the area where he grew up in Clough, County Down.

'I live ten minutes from the beach and love going there, and am often inspired after visiting. This is why water can feature in many of my paintings. The play of movement and perspective from a still horizon in a large body of water intrigues me.'

'Omission'

Does he meticulously plan each piece, or is there a certain amount of organic development allowed? 'I generally have the image mapped out, and everything’s organised, but I do still allow an element of spontaneity in each painting. The image I work from is more of a guide rather than the exact image I must paint.'

Johnston talks maturely, modestly and eloquently about his work, which is even more impressive given the reaction he has already garnered from collectors and the industry as a whole.

Art consultant, Carrie Neely, who put the exhibition together, says of the largest piece, entitled ‘I’m Not’, 'It’s possibly the best painting by a young contemporary artist from Northern Ireland in years'.

Fondly nicknamed ‘The Beast’ by Johnston, the painting is a whopping 127 x 220 cms and is the most spectacular of all the works on show. Johnston chooses to juxtapose light and dark in many of his canvases, and he succeeds particularly well with this specific piece.

Not all the pieces are large. It’s good to see a wide variety of canvas size, and there are some images grouped together, such as triptych ‘Sea’, ‘Here’ and ‘Speak’.

Most images feature figures that are faceless, their heads covered by a range of objects including saucepans, helmets, and buckets, and dealing with the issue of identity and relationships, but there are a couple of faces included, both completely mesmerising.

Johnston’s skill with the brush is nothing short of incredible. He is already a consummate professional, and undoubtedly a major talent. I’m already eagerly awaiting his next exhibition. And I'm not the only one.

Perceptions runs at Art Tank, 58 Lisburn Road, Belfast until December 22.