October 14, 2013

Robert Hope-Johnstone

Robert Hope-Johnstone tells us about studio life, future projects and battling with Kant.

The first thing we notice when we meet artist Robert Hope-Johnstone in his studio in Peckham are his hands: grimy with engrained charcoal. It is, he explains, one of the drawbacks of working in the medium. But then he begins to talk us through his portfolio and we can see that the work is worth the perennially black fingers; the union of charcoal and Bockingford paper in many of his pieces is extremely beautiful, detailed from a distance but with a hand-rendered haziness close up. We talk through his collection of charcoal works and the conversation traverses an impossible range of topics, from the influence of Miroslaw Balka and the significance of artistic trends to the philosophy of Edmund Burke within the space of half an hour. Nothing, it seems, can escape this twenty four year old’s endlessly inquisitive mind.  

The Romantic concept of the sublime informs much of Hope-Johnstone’s work, he tells us. For him, this means ‘in a nutshell, an elevated feeling of oneself’, and traces of a very personal tempest of feelings are evident in his ‘Polar’ charcoal drawings. The high contrast of light and dark in these pieces is noteworthy, he says, due to his traditional notion that ‘before moving into colour or expressive strokes, you have to be able to define an object through light and dark, or shadow.’ 

His previous solo show at Peckham Springs played host to a particularly awe-inspiring triptych of charcoal images, and this, together with another recent piece - ‘Arches’ - lends his portfolio an interesting religious overtone. ‘My work does delve into religion and questions of self-reflection,’ he explains to us in his studio. ‘It’s kind of like harmony but, at the same time, terror and isolation.’ 

Our conversation is dominated by this idea of self-reappraisal. His work insists that its audience engages, inviting them to question their role and response as they view the pieces. He wants, he explains, to ‘provoke a state of self-reflection; an overwhelming knowledge of oneself and a sense of place.’ And in Hope-Johnstone’s hands this state of self-reflection can become quite terrifying: ‘I do enjoy the topics of uncertainty, fear and dread, as the outcome and response is completely dependent on the viewer. [Art has the potential to] elevate to a higher sense or cripple to an inward position of dismay.’ Two of his most arresting pieces demonstrate this most clearly; they are emblazoned with the words ‘ALONE’ and ‘ENTER’, which, set in counterpoint to the stark black-and-white of the cloudy charcoal background, appear particularly striking and fear-inciting.

This notion of manipulating the feelings of his viewers is one which underpins much of Hope-Johnstone’s work, and draws on the installation work of Balka. ‘How It Is’ is of chief interest to him, he says; the immersiveness of the installation in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, the ‘utter awareness of going into complete darkness’, was something he found especially inspiring. He is beginning to delve into sculpture himself, and he shows us his formative ideas for a new exhibition which will explore means of simulating - rather than simply depicting - nature. A piece of resin on the floor of his studio seems to take on the reflection of water, glowing as the sea at night would with the light of the moon. This new direction is both beautiful and gently inquisitive, while posing a technical distance from his previous pieces. 

This is typical of Hope-Johnstone, whose experimental bent means that his work continually surprises. Since graduating from Camberwell College of Art (where, as part of his Graphic Design degree, he began experimenting with the blend of digital and fine art), he has created an impressive portfolio of pieces and read incessantly. With chapters of Kant in hand (‘fucking difficult’, he admits with a laugh) and the support of the community of artists at The Sunday Painter, the Peckham-based studio where he works, he has flitted between charcoal, photography, sculpture and screen-printing, ever-curious and ready to experiment. Such a comprehensive portfolio must require long hours alone in his studio; does he ever feel isolated? Yes, he says, but often deliberately so. ‘It’s very hard to be original when you’re trying to impress everyone else, because naturally you’ll then follow trends. That’s why I’m really happy with this situation I’ve got at the moment.’

He is right, of course, and his disinterest in trends is what makes his pieces so compelling. There is a depth to his portfolio which sets him apart from the fleeting, trend-based work of others, and a fascinating philosophy behind every mark he makes on paper. ‘I think the word ‘public’ is very important for me,’ he tells us towards the end of our meeting, ‘because the whole purpose of my work is for the public benefit, whether it be good or bad or whether it just creates a glimmer of thought.’ Make time to acquaint yourself with Hope-Johnstone’s work at one of his upcoming exhibitions or online; the glimmers of thought his portfolio inspires will linger with you for weeks. 

Robert Hope-Johnstone
Main image © Angus Fulton

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