Brian David Johnston

Story by Laura Savoie.

The following was written in collaboration with McMaster University’s Art History 4X03 course, Winter 2020. Lead by Dr. Angela Sheng and BCL’s Alexis Moline, students conducted first hand research on their chosen subjects and many had the opportunity to meet with the artists in person. BCL gratefully appreciates the care and dedication the students demonstrated in forging personal and engaging stories in collaboration with the artists in their Hamilton community.

Brian Johnston marries spirituality and art together in surrealistic and expressionist style as a means of unfolding the complexity of the human condition. He is an eclectic artist who experiments with many traditional methods blended with the digital medium (tradigital approach) searching for unique aesthetic practice and expression.

Combining Intuition, Intellect and Innovation, he explores his personal ideologies and confronts the world of faith, imagination, identity and reality challenging our culturally shaped perceptions. He calls his method, Tradigital, a mixed media presentation of photography, print -making, sculpture, painting, and drawing (ie. pen and ink) like an alchemist, he experiments with mixed media to unravel Contemporary Existentialist questions with Surrealist undertones! I find his practice reminiscent of Francis Bacon (1909-1992), each image is a purposeful melange, actively “plumbing the depths” to subvert disinterest and the status quo.

Brian David Johnston. “I would sooner kill fifty thousand men than any dog”. Relief prints based on David Avon's 'Meditations: A Man Of The World'. c.1980. Courtesy of the artist.

Like the Renaissance masters, his work is grounded in religious concepts and iconography conveying an interest in the ongoing ambiguities, absurdities and anomalies of life. His work attempts to represent an introspective world where invisibility of life’s internal reality is manifested outwardly through artistic form and expression. His art practice is an introspective and earthly inquisition about what makes us human. Any medium he uses is tamed to channel the intensity and fullness of his mind into eerily beautiful, sometimes grotesque, dark, yet graceful and optimistic images of the human form. Searching for the things that might visually describe the human condition is a monumental task. A life’s work, requiring prolific and intense commitment.

Brian David Johnston. “Constellations". 1986. Courtesy of the artist.
Brian David Johnston. "Untitled (Skeletal Christ)". c.1970s. Courtesy of the artist.

Johnston’s earlier work embraced the human form, lively gestural pen and ink drawings of overlapping and merging bodies on richly textured papers were a key subject of interest. While attending the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in the 70’s, now The Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) he grappled with life’s purpose and direction. For most of his life his mission has been to explore what it means to be human, present in the world yet constantly moving towards a centred universe sometimes having to pass through and experience the void of our existence.

Listening to his stories I am reminded of the metaphorical seasons of life…summer, the youthfulness of energy, study and work, then the middle years of growing community and faith, the third season a rich splendour of accomplishment and now the wintering of sorts, bending down with deep contemplative thoughts, the long and fruitful task ahead of sorting through the detritus, unravelling the meanings and context of memories into a series meta narratives describing and chronicling his life’s work. Johnston’s work obsesses and consumes him.

Brian David Johnston. “Faces After The Fall”. 1982. Series of ten etchings with hand cut linoleum relief prints, handmade book that measures when opened 20” high x 28” wide on BFK RIVES paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Today, as I sit with him, there’s a bit of white paint on the sleeve of his sweater, his hair is long and his wily gray beard only accentuates an ever ready grin and twinkling eyes. There is an energy about him, a relaxed but confidently situated self that pours out of him and into our conversation. He exudes a gloriously comfortable and welcoming regard. He’s so naturally inquisitive, so unpretentious, listening carefully and then answering with a slow flow only deep thinkers possess. He’s a prolific artist but he could have been a philosopher, he’s a teacher but not an academic. A self-proclaimed image maker, digging deep to bring forth meaningful dialogue into the changing cultural context and his enriching community of faith, he steadily moves forward.

Sounding mournful and entranced in equal measure he says to me “you can’t make something out of nothing.” Johnston is thinking about what makes us human and how the creative process engages us with our inner chaos and uncertainty, bringing forth new ways of perceiving and using these potent energies to create new imaginative stories to unravel the enigmas and mysteries of life. I imagine there is another coming season yet upon him. It must soon be Spring.

Brian David Johnston. “The Philosopher's Stone”. 1979. One of a series of five, stone paintings measuring 4 ft x 4 ft, each weighing 100 lbs. Courtesy of the artist.

To contact the artist please visit his website at www.briandavidjohnston.net / A deafened artist please email or text.

Archive of Artist Works: