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Paintings by emerging artist Nicholas Johnson give life to Taikoo Place’s The Refinery


By Arthur Tam

Taikoo Place is more than an office complex. It is a community that champions art and culture in Hong Kong, like with multipurpose event space ArtisTree and the captivating art pieces placed around the property.

Continuing on that narrative, Taikoo Place will see the arrival of the new private members’ club, The Refinery, which officially opens on 1 February. It’s a haven to relax and refuel and features a tasteful design with artwork from emerging artists. One of them is American painter Nicholas Johnson, who will have two vibrant pieces on display. We talk to the Hawaiian native about the significance of his floral motifs and how displaying his work at venues like The Refinery can be a liberating experience.

Your work is often described as intellectual. Would you agree with that?

I’m pleased that it is perceived that way because it suggests there is more happening than what is available at a quick glance. I think what I have said about my own work in the past is that my work is ‘underpinned by an idiosyncratic academicism’, which means that I studied philosophy before art, employ literature a lot as a reference, and try, as often as possible, to write essays that catalogue the various research or reading leading up to an exhibition. I’m cherry picking from many disparate ideas that interest me and reassembling them to form an idea by association, so there isn’t necessarily a very coherent narrative.

You reference literary works like Heart of Darkness and The Odyssey in your work. What role do they play?
It is crucial for an artist to be able to reference the history of their ideas. Often I think we do not understand that our own ideas are already ancient and they have historical precedents. Aligning them with previous manifestations is key to making something that will continue to have relevance in the future.

You say you ‘paint flowers’. Why have you chosen to focus on florals and vegetation?

Saying I paint flowers is an attempt to disarm. Behind the naivety of that statement I can hide a host of other ideas that could be revealed if someone is allowed a way in. Saying I paint flowers is the way in. Floral and landscape motifs have often been sidelined in the history of art as not particularly relevant or vital. It’s seen as decorative, marginal or frivolous, like the illustrations in the border of a biblical manuscript. But often these marginal illustrations reveal a lot about the sentiment of the time and people that produced them. I like the idea of vegetation as a silent, conscious witness to history, which has imposed countless readings and mis-readings onto it. Flowers and plants are used to represent things that may have very little to do with them, the way a hibiscus can represent paradise for the European, or a sort of common weed for the islander. I like to think of vegetation as a kind of tabula rasa, a blank slate to reframe ideas of perception and consciousness and what we think of as uniquely human traits.

How do you think man’s relationship with nature has changed? And what type of relationship is it like today?
This is a huge subject, which I hesitate to begin exploring here. As it relates to my work, I have for some years now been interested in the subject of plant consciousness, which is an ancient idea, but something that I think is gaining a foothold in Western discourse. In several countries recently they have given river systems a legal status of personhood as a way of restructuring an approach to environmental conservation efforts. This interests me because it challenges the narrowly defined Western ideas of consciousness as an idea of agency that has existed for hundreds of years since the Renaissance. There are older, much more expansive ideas that exist and seem to be gaining a new, vital relevance.

What do you think about artists displaying their work in alternative venues ones that are not galleries?
I have shown work in a lot of venues outside of a traditional gallery space like The Averard Hotel in London, an alternative space run by Alex Meurice in a derelict hotel. Potentially, encountering anything that strikes you as beautiful or intriguing in an unusual environment adds a lot, because it can create unexpected, profound moments for the person who stumbles on it. Galleries are a difficult space for the uninitiated, which might seem like a ridiculous thing to say in art, but for a lot of people the gallery is an inaccessible space. And the idea of the white cube – a neutral space – can be an oppressive idea. It can also lend a significance to gestures that wouldn't otherwise be noticed. This is a complicated way of saying that context is everything, and that experimenting with venues is beneficial for art. Seeing art stake a claim in unexpected places is what creates new forms and new readings of art.

When you heard about your two pieces – Certain Crystalline Forms (third image) and Introduced (Harvest Moon) Species (fourth image) – being displayed at The Refinery, a private members’ club in the heart of a vibrant business hub, what was the first thing that came to mind?
The idea of people sitting around, having a conversation, drinking, occasionally glancing at an artwork, is exactly the kind of environment I think art should be viewed in. The austere gallery environment can be so annoyingly po-faced sometimes and completely shuts down any possibility for exploratory, convivial discussion. Most people aren’t confident enough in a gallery to say they don’t like something. The gallery can also create a false sense of importance around things. And saying you don’t like something opens up a lot more possibilities for discussion than saying that something is important. Explain why you don’t like it, conversely, explain why it is important. A bar in a private members' club is a perfect environment for this sort of discussion.

What’s the mood and atmosphere that you are trying to create with these pieces? Is there a certain narrative that you want viewers to follow?

The mood I would like these works to convey is something weighty, weighed down by the burden of history, something with age, something thoughtful, something ‘intellectual’. The title Certain Crystalline Forms was borrowed from writer and academic WG Sebald and Introduced (Harvest Moon) Species was borrowed from a rather obscure English landscape painter, Samuel Palmer. For me, the works were created at a similar time and I consider them as part of the same series. They are both about ideas of attempting to understand the world that surrounds us through plants.

There is a narrative observers could follow, but I think it is very serpentine and may lead to dead ends unless I personally take them by the hand and show them the way through the thicket. But all of these possible dead ends I hope are what makes for something that is worth returning to, to look at again.

Haven’t had enough art? Check out the best galleries in the Eastern District here.

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