The everyday uncanny: Painter Johnny Izatt-Lowry’s defamiliarising of the familiar

Johnny Izatt-Lowry takes images and objects from the quotidian world of daily existence and transplants them onto the plane of the subconscious, where they float just beyond our grasp, detached from the context of waking reality. In a process Johnny refers to as “re-imaging” – in which an image, idea or concept is subjected to the distorting mediums of memory, imagination and Photoshop – the known becomes unknown. This offset version of reality arranges itself in Johnny’s compositions with uncanny precision, the organic figures and shapes of everyday experience made unsettlingly regular, artificialised to the point that they acquire almost the abstract, geometric qualities of the digital. Patterns repeat themselves obsessively; faces become flattened surfaces devoid of identity; hands appear disembodied; domestic objects float alone and ungrounded on stark, block-colour backgrounds.

Using a sparse palette of muted hues and greyscale shades, Johnny creates his images by rubbing dry pigments directly into onto a coarse fabric ground. The resulting quality of haziness upholds the dreamlike unreality of the subjects, as though the viewer is encountering them indirectly – through a blurred monochrome photograph, a fogged pane of glass, a smokescreen, an antiquated computer monitor. This sense of mediated seeing is intensified in Johnny’s work for his recent solo show at Cooke Latham Gallery, By day, but then again by night. Throughout the series, Johnny sets us at a further remove from the depicted reality by shrouding many of his scenes in the dimness of night, leached of colour. In one particular pair of paintings, Field by day and Field by night, a botanic image is replicated almost exactly but with its colours inverted, as though a night-vision filter has been applied to simulate a lapse of time between the two images.

Working from his studio in London, Johnny is currently experimenting with new ideas and creating works towards group exhibitions in the new year, the apparent mundaneness of the everyday still at the core of his creative fascination.

AMM: Can you tell us about your background and how you first started making visual art? Is being an artist something you always aspired to?

JIL: I grew up in Durham, in a village just outside the city. I was always drawing or wanting to make things. I was definitely interested in other subjects in school, but for whatever reason, I only ever thought I was going to be an artist. It’s weird how that happens.

I remember always wanting to look at paintings, although without a huge amount of galleries near where I lived, I would just look at books. I used to copy images from textbooks and magazines. It’s definitely still a part of my practice now – seeing the world from a slight distance and re-imaging it from a collection of sources.

AMM: Your paintings seem to exist at a remove from reality – the hazy quality of the images, the ambiguity of the settings – how would you describe the world or space that your pictures visualise?

JIL: The works are all very much informed by our own world. The subjects are normally presented very simply; I want there to be an instant connection to the subject matter. But there’s definitely a feeling that they live somewhere just outside of our world, on the outskirts, in this slightly strange, slightly awkward version of reality.
 It’s almost like they are memories of things that exist in our everyday life, or else we’re meeting them in a slightly dreamlike state. The titles are always written in a very simple way too, ‘a chair’ or ‘a log’ as if they’re in a textbook or encyclopaedia. I want there to be a sense of playfulness with the imagery. They often seem pretty light-hearted at first, and yet there is sometimes something slightly more sinister running through the works, a certain anxiety which is maybe harder to place.

AMM: Tell us a bit about the different materials you work with when making an artwork.

JIL: I mostly work with dry pigments, rubbed into a fabric called crepe which has this grainy and soft texture – its what give the works their hazy feel. You have to build the colours up in layers, and the image often appears slowly on the surface. It gives the imagery a sense of fragility and ambiguity. I also make a lot of drawings using coloured pencil; there’s something similar in the way both materials work, in the way colours are built up and have a certain subtlety.

‘Self portrait, drawing’, pigment on crepe, 30cm x 40cm

AMM: Your paintings are very aware of the formal qualities of your subjects, to the point that some of your works become almost abstract in their composition, and yet this is offset by your close attention to detail and your use of fine brushstrokes. How do you understand this relationship between the abstract and the figurative in your work?

JIL: I want there to be this play with the reality of the subjects and the more surreal nature of representation. There’s always a sense that the subject has been manipulated in some way. I often use Photoshop to make very crude compositions to work from. In this way, things are brought together in very flat layers which always feel quite artificial. There’s a feeling that each subject is trying to persuade us of its reality, through finely rendered surfaces or clearly placed shadows, but there’s always something not quite right, there’s always a certain unavoidable awkwardness in the way they’ve been manipulated.

AMM: I notice some recurring images among your different works – namely the crow, wood grain, the uncanny, anonymous face and the disembodied hand. Where do these images come from? Do you often find yourself returning to particular symbols within your work?

JIL: I’m definitely attracted to certain subject matter. Things which I feel can’t be easily placed in a particular location or time – they’re sort of non-specific in a way. These things then seem to crop up again and again; they become part of a language.

At times, there is some sort of human presence in the works, such as the disembodied hand or a headless figure. Although, even with these, they take on a certain generality – they are never really people, just the idea of a person or an action.

AMM: What is your approach to light and colour in your work?

JIL: Colour is very important to the works. In most paintings, I usually like to keep quite a limited palette, some becoming almost monochromatic. There’s usually only two or three colours in each work, so the elements can begin to blur into one another. That’s why I started making so many paintings of things at night; I like the way distinct forms can begin to disappear slightly when covered in these layers of blues and blacks. The world always becomes slightly more uncertain at night.

‘Birds on a log, at night’, pigment on crepe, 40cm x 50cm

AMM: There is a definite sense of the uncanny or surreal underlying your paintings – particularly in those like Face I and Face II which bestow a kind of subjectivity onto inert objects. How do you think about this interplay of the familiar and the unfamiliar?

JIL: I always begin with subject matter which feels ordinary in a way. Usually things that I feel comfortable with or that I interact with on an everyday basis. I think there’s a lot of scope with how these subjects can be played with and altered in a way that positions them in this uncertain place. This is when they become uncanny I guess. It’s like they’re almost right, but they’re just slightly off and so they take on this strange sensibility. With the face paintings, I wanted to work with the idea of the simplified smiley face being something we’re quite used to now. It should be quite cheery, but there’s something so unnerving about its expression in this painting. Its smile seems so unbelievable, a bit sad really. The sad face on Face II, on the other hand, seems even comical.

AMM: Congratulations on your solo show, By day, but then again by night, at Cooke Latham Gallery this autumn! What does the title allude to?

JIL: The title for the show suggests this loose theme under which I wanted the works to exist. The idea of describing this world by day and also at night. I liked to think about how each subject could be depicted during the day, how we normally picture them, but then that the idea of night could be consciously added to the subject like a filter, just by bathing it in dark blues and blacks. It added an idea of time to the works, although in this very contrived way.

AMM: When planning for an exhibition, do you tend to create with a central theme in mind or is the relation of the works a more organic, coincidental one?

JIL: I start by making a lot of drawings in colour pencil then move on to making paintings from the ones which excite me the most. Making a series of drawings like this means you can build up quite a pool of imagery in quick succession, over a couple of weeks or so. Even though I’m not thinking about any particular narrative at the time, each drawing informs the next, and so motifs begin to repeat themselves. Maybe they’re not part of the same story, but they seem to at least be part of the same conversation. Perhaps some sort of narrative can be created by the viewer afterwards, but I like to not have a huge amount of control over this when making the works, that part just happens quite naturally I guess.

‘A bird falling, at night’, pigment on crepe, 25cm x 30cm

AMM: What are the most significant ways in which your practice and approach have changed since your studies and over the course of your artistic career?

JIL: My process is constantly evolving. I’m always working out new ways of working with the pigments, and there’s a huge amount of trial and error. A lot of things don’t work out, some things do. I think I’m constantly refining and changing the ways pigment can be applied, which can in turn change the things I want to paint. Finding a new way to describe a surface or effect can spark an interest in working with a particular subject.

AMM: What kind of setup do you have as a workspace? Are there certain conditions that are necessary for you to be able to make? 

JIL: I have my studio in London which I try to go to every day during the week. I like to do a normal day’s work in there from about 9 till 6 or so, any later and I start to get tired and make bad decisions. I pretty much always have something on in the background while I’m working, alternating between music, podcasts and TV. With my process, there can be large periods of time when I’m doing quite a repetitive task, such as filling out a large space of colour or a repeated pattern, so I definitely need something to entertain me while I do it, even if it’s just background noise. I find it’s a pretty relaxing process though; there’s something slightly meditative about such a repetitive and slow process which I find pretty soothing.

AMM: Do you tend to have an image or blueprint for a work in mind before starting on a composition or is it a spontaneous process?

JIL: I always make a series of studies before I start a painting; mostly drawings in colour pencil and sometimes pigment or soft pastel studies on paper for colour. Mainly though it’s to work out composition before I start painting. Using pigments in this way isn’t very forgiving, and once a colour is down on the crepe, it can’t really come off, so I have to really have the image figured out in some way before I start. There is still a lot left to chance during the process of painting, so you can never really tell what it’s going to look like.

‘Self portrait, smoking’, pigment on crepe, 30cm x 40cm

AMM: How does your creative work figure in your daily life when you’re away from the studio? Do you find inspiration in the world around you, or make sketches from observation?

JIL: I think I get most of the ideas for my work when outside the studio, in moments of pause, like if I’m on the bus or before falling asleep. I never really work from observation though, or even take photos of something I’ve seen. I normally think about a subject that I’d like to work with and then spend a while getting trapped in these ‘related image’ loops on google, looking at tons of images of the same thing. I start to build up an idea of how the subject is presented in images and how I’d like to work with it.

AMM: Beyond the visual, what else has an impact on your work? Do the things you read or conversations you have ever make it into your paintings?

JIL: It’s hard to say exactly, I feel like there’s always part of your brain waiting for ideas of what to work on next. I think when I’m on the lookout for the unremarkable as a starting off point for a new painting, this can really come to you at any point.

AMM: What’s next for your artistic practice? Has your work been affected by the global situation?

JIL: I’ve been back in the studio since finishing work on my solo show in September, and it’s been really nice to start experimenting with ideas again; just making works without any particular framework is quite freeing. The pandemic this year has definitely affected my work in a number of different ways, most of which I guess are pretty hard to define. The first lockdown I spent working from home, which was pretty constrictive – I was just drawing really. That’s when I planned most of the works for my show in September. This time around I’m back in the studio making works for a few group shows coming up in the new year.

Find out more about the artist:

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Chalet at night’, pigment on crepe, 105cm x 120cm