To be a sculptor in Australia poses particular challenges, for Australia is an extremely large landmass with a small population mainly located in the capital cities and along a narrow coastal strip. Greg Johns was born in Adelaide - one of the smaller capital cities - he trained at the South Australian School of Art and has continued to live and work there all his life. It is to his great credit that he has determinedly pursued a career as a sculptor from the time he left art school, in a city that, compared with Melbourne or Sydney, has far fewer collectors of contemporary Australian art, far fewer corporate organisations that might act as sponsors - or commission works - and a smaller number of commercial galleries in which to exhibit. (A recent edition of Art Almanac listed 179 galleries in Melbourne and 14 in Adelaide.) The considerable distances between capital cities had tended to isolate sculptors in Perth, Hobart and Adelaide and has bred a certain insularity of attitude which has meant that Greg Johns' work is not as well known in other states as it should be.
He was fortunate when he was at art school to have had as lecturers three excellent sculptors who encouraged a broad vision and stimulated his ambition. Owen Broughton inculcated a love of impeccable craftsmanship and taught the young sculptor the skills needed to work in metal, particularly Corten steel. Max Lyie engendered an enthusiasm for contemporary sculpture, while that maverick sculptor, Bert Flugelman, at first thought that Greg Johns was 'unteachable' - then changed his mind and decided he was 'unstoppable'. 1
'Unstoppable' is a very good description of Greg Johns for he has great physical energy, a driving ambition to produce sculpture and a conviction that he is capable of producing work that, while linked to the past, is nonetheless relevant to our own age. From the beginning his sculpture has been strong in form and charged with an original content that has prevented it from ever being viewed as decorative. A highly inquisitive mind coupled with omnivorous reading has brought an extremely diverse range of influences into his work - from the extreme simplicity of minimal sculpture to the intricate patterns of Celtic art, from physics to Zen Buddhism, from the art of New Guinea to the work of Noguchi and Brancusi. The remarkable thing is that Greg Johns has been able to absorb these disparate influences and evolve his own symbolic language.
Essentially pragmatic, he knew all too well that earning a living as a sculptor is difficult anywhere in Australia, but with an admirable lack of pretence, knowing that his skills as a metal worker in sculpture are applicable to other situations, he has designed and fabricated steel fences, gateways, staircases and shop counters, adding a note of originality to otherwise mundane functional objects.
Many of his early sculptures were visual conundrums, apparently simple forms that changed dramatically - circles became squares, stars transformed into cubes or cubes converted to circles. But it wasn't the visual trickery that intrigued Johns, rather he was fascinated by concepts of paradox and duality and used these dramatic changes of form to introduce spectators to the roles of movement and time when viewing his work. Squared Circle, produced in 1985 and placed in the grounds of Carrick Hill, Adelaide, is an excellent example of both his constant desire to produce public sculpture on a large scale and his avowed delight in '... getting impossible things to co-exist'. 2
Always hoping for a commission that would enable him to transform a studio maquette into a major outdoor work, he has sometimes had to wait many years for the right opportunity. Birth, a complex work consisting of an endless flow of repetitious semi-circular forms was eventually greatly enlarged to 8.5 metres wide and installed at the Chadstone Shopping Centre, Melbourne, in 1999, with a new title. Origin. By this stage his work had changed in style and figurative elements had emerged, yet the artist's decision to fabricate an idea of 1982 proved to be highly successful in style and scale for the prominent position on the Princes Highway.
It was in the late 1980s that Johns first started to introduce figurative references such as shields, shrines and stark, enigmatic figures - a devel- opment which greatly increased his repertoire of forms. He began to explore the possibilities of more complex arrangements of three or four related forms, as in Forgotten-Remembered Figures, (1989), for Manchester Unity in Adelaide. These monumental figures have a strong presence, but are quite static, whereas later works such as Excavator or Horizon Figure IV, both produced in 1997/98, have sweeping, controlled movements. Excavator is a strange, hybrid, bird-like form that bemused spectators when it was shown in the Botanical Gardens in Singapore in 1999 - should they view it as an abstract piece of sculpture, was it a bird, should they take it seriously or did it contain an elements of humour? Its sheer ambiguity added to its fascination. Excavator is also of interest as it includes frag- ments of burnt redgum with the Corten steel, a significant departure for Greg Johns who had steadfastly used Corten steel for virtually all his works - more than any other Australian sculptor he has claimed the rusted sur- faces and hard-edged forms as his own. Corten steel is still the dominant material in From the Horizon to the Horizon, (2001), a towering six metre high work installed at the Marion Cultural Centre, but other materials have been included as accents. Floating high is a cloud form in stainless steel while the boat-like structure at the base is constructed of metal and contains ironstone rocks. This work is yet another public sculpture for Adelaide by Greg Johns, where his work is well known and appreciated. With over thirty large-scale public and private commissions in South Australia, compared with six in Victoria (all but one in country areas), three in NSW and one at the University of Tasmania, Hobart, it is easy to see that Adelaide is the artist's home base.
What is interesting to note in recent years are the overseas commissions and exhibitions - in Singapore, USA and UK. Johns has refused to allow the comparative isolation of Adelaide to limit his career and has determinedly forged links overseas by becoming a member of the International Sculpture Centre, USA, and has exhibited with the New Art Centre in London and the New York Sculptors' Guild. Ironically, for an Australian artist who has suffered the high costs of freighting his work interstate, it is now no more difficult to exhibit in London or New York.
This publication will help to make known the original strength of Greg Johns' sculpture. Universal in its themes, contemporary in material and style, always visually accessible, they are forceful as domestic sculptures and powerful as large-scale public works. Adelaide has been extremely fortunate to have this talented artist in its midst, but the time has come for his vision to be shared with a much broader international community.
1. Bert Flugelman in conversation with J. Neylon, December 2000.
2. Greg Johns in conversation with J. Neylon, 2001.
Ken Scarlett. 2002