Selected essays & writing


This solo exhibition of James Johnson-Perkins not only allows us get in touch with the artist's world of creation but gives an opportunity to every visitor become an accomplice in a giant game. Johnson-Perkins works with those objects which are known by almost everyone from the childhood: here we can see hula hoops, paper planes, blackboards and characters from cartoons and comics. He makes us remember, nostalgize, compare and rethink our past.

For example, whilst drawing and erasing on the blackboard, which James uses as a material for his new installation 'Blackboard', it’s difficult to avoid your memories from the past and that joy you felt when drawing on a school board as a child. Or when we stare at the numerous figures on his huge Gigatage photomontage artworks, unconsciously we notice which ones are familiar to us and which are not, and what stories these have played in our own unique worlds.

This is as a litmus test which shows difference or similarities between ours and artist's cultural background. At the same time eternal questions may arise: where do these people come from? Where do we are come from? Where are we now and where we will go tomorrow? This exhibition is a interactive puzzle of sorts and a series of activities, where we can find out about: memory, ourselves and the times we live in.

As Johnson-Perkins is currently researching Chinese games and culture for this exhibition he will be facilitating a workshop to create a giant floor installation using hundreds of traditional Chinese Puzzles, Tangrams.  During this workshop, he will also be re-making a huge playful sculpture 'Hula' which will complement this work, using a large number of colourful connected hula hoops.

Zhanna Khromyk
Chinese Academy of Art, Hangzhou/ How Art Museum, Shanghai

Liangzhu Culture Centre, Hangzhou, China
July 2017


Johnson-Perkins' photogr­­­­aphic work is not only huge in size, the subject matter it shares with its audience is also one of a grand scale. Through the craftsmanship of his collages he creates post-surrealist landscapes. The visual elements he uses, work either according to time and space, or with people and objects, which are portrayed relating to the content, and in the context, of such topics. They have not only extensive contrasts and conflicts, but also thought-provoking connections. What appears before the viewer, is a multifaceted work constructed with a context and complexity of many different aspects of human society.

Johnson-Perkins creates landscapes of different modern and historical figures entering the scene of certain iconic city corners: renowned historical sites, civic squares symbolic of state authority or shopping centers of fashionable capitals. In scenes so rich with history, a great number of characters enter the stage. Appearing in a carnivalesque moment on a comedy stage. Here – in a world made of pixels, which the artist has created, he transforms our understanding of culture and history, manipulating aspects of these as if it was a game. In the process of this game, every character that appears, no matter how strong their identity may be, is being changed in a strange way by showing up simultaneously, flattened, in this time and space with the other characters.

Johnson-Perkins’ surreal narration comes from certain imagination. Memories - composed of time - supporting the imagination are easy forgotten. The way Johnson-Perkins reveals memory is special and unique: between games and art, art and reality, or between the games of children and the wars of adults, there are stories with indefinite boundaries being interpreted. In these visual narratives, every word that flashes in your mind is moving away from it’s original meaning, towards another, or even in the opposite direction.

Professor Qin Jian, Xiamen University, China, July 2015


The question of ‘Freedom’ has always been fundamental for Russian society and in the current situation it has a dramatic importance for the people that do not share the ‘State’ views. Moreover it becomes really questionable whether the notion of being free really exists in such totalitarian conditions, as there have been numerous occasions when one’s individual expression was overwhelmed by the ‘siloviki’ regime.

In the last 25 years Russian society has been trying to ‘break’ from the Soviet background and to gain its new identity, but as it is shown in the artist’s work, we are not moving forward. It is a reversing effect that does not give a chance for new begging, we are always moving backwards as if constantly being pulled back and restricted in choosing directions. One of the most important Russian artist’s Ilya Kabakov has been dealing with the notion of being trapped in time and place for almost the entire career. He always was trying to break free from the surrounding, ideology, and way of life. All of these issues have direct relationship to contemporary situation and this video work also hints at these matters in such way that one can’t continue to be ignorant or even keep our eyes and mouth shut.

The dancing and the visual appearance of a man in a Balaclava, used in this video, are referencing the widely known performance piece ‘A Punk Prayer’ by Pussy Riot. It was performed in the main Moscow cathedral and resulted in the prison sentence for the artist’s group. Nadezda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, whom have suffered for expressing their unhappiness and rebellious attitude. There are some other examples such as the artist’s group ‘Voina’, who also strongly expressed theirs dissatisfaction with the government approach. Likewise they were charged and prosecuted for not willing to accept and to be quiet.

This video at the first glance may seem to be a joke or some sort of ironic statement, but to me it reflects a true understanding of Russian reality. Through so many years of repression and suffering from not being able to freely speak and express what is on one’s mind, humor served as a secret and also sacred language, which is meant to be funny, but actually was expressing real sadness. So this type of humorous approach in the work gives a hidden understanding about the complete madness of the current situation, and shows how surreal and false it is, and leaves the viewer with unsettling feelings. Is it for real or it is some kind of a joke? Could it be a joke? Surely not!

Misha Levin, Head of the Moscow School of Contemporary Art
Written about the video work 'I Want to Break Free', exhibited as part of the 'I am' Exhibition, Moscow, Russia, April,


In November 2014 UNNC library opened an exhibition by the artist,
James Johnson-Perkins.

In this ever shifting universe, where the rug is frequently pulled out from under our feet it is no surprise that some look for consolation to the heroes and icons who were conduits of our childhood adoration and sense of wonder. Johnson-Perkins’ work unashamedly hinges on the theme of nostalgia and by degrees the viewer becomes a participant in his grandly realised backwards-looking vision. Hanging behind the library desk in all its 150cm x 530cm glory, the centrepiece of the exhibition, ‘The Great Battle’, depicts a confrontation between the forces of good and evil, superimposed onto the elegant backdrop of a Venetian scene inspired by Canaletto.

This apocalypse is strewn with iconic baddies- Godzilla, Jabba the Hut, the Marshmallow Man; as well as real-life villains like Myra Hindley and Al Capone. The good guys, Bruce Lee, Kenny Daglish and Wonder woman are positioned on the right side of the giant work, offering hope of redemption. In this showdown victory for the righteous is far from assured, and literally must be snatched from the jaws of Jaws, with Spielberg’s shark (itself a riff on Melville’s monstrous white whale, Moby Dick) leaping majestically from the waters of the canal. Elsewhere, as a reminder of the demons within, Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining peers menacingly out from behind a Venetian blind on a shady backstreet corner- “Here’s Johnny!”. These super high-resolution Gigapan images are put together using source paintings and photographs, Photoshop and hi-tech rendering and imaging techniques; each one can take up to 1-2 years to compete. The Jaws example illustrates the painstaking attention to detail involved, with the shark and flying spray blended seamlessly into the waterway scene.

The Gigapan work with the most obvious connection to the 'starry eyed' title is the portrait of celebrated British astronomer Sir Patrick Moore. Johnson-Perkins photographed the one man cultural institution among his telescopes, books and trinkets after a fan letter from the artist (Moore had presented legendary BBC program The Sky at Night) led to an invitation from a then elderly Moore to come and visit him in his home. There is something gravity defying about the piece, with various aircraft, planets and Tetris blocks hanging suspended in the room. The detail is so well mapped, that in places it’s difficult to know which objects were actually in the room at the time of photographing, and which were superimposed on afterwards. A modern silver TV set at an oblique angle carries an authentic looking image of the inauthentic looking moon landing, while Moore, dressed in Khaki’s looks resolutely out at the viewer through his famous monocle.

In this exhibition space, along a narrow corridor in the library you find yourself (somewhat akin to a Tetris block) sandwiched between the portrait, with its carnival of astronomy and space-related imagery, and a much starker piece entitled ‘Space Invaders’. The latter is a panoramic photograph of the Omani desert with rows of pixellated baddies from the iconic arcade game transposed over the desert landscape.

The title of this exhibition, ‘This Starry Sky Lights Up Because of You’ draws on an English phrase that caught Johnson-Perkins’ eye on the cover of a notebook at a local Chinese stationary outlet. Staying alive to the poeticism of his surroundings is a part of the artist’s aesthetic. He explains to visitors craning their necks upwards at a screen mounted on the wall of the stairwell that the video piece on display, ’The Sturovo Super Hero Society’ was the culmination of a separate project undertaken while Johnson-Perkins was at an Artist Residency in Slovakia. Working on the theme of guardians of a bridge, which separates Strurovo from the Hungarian town of Esztergom, the artist invited members of the local community to imagine their own superhero identities, collaborating with them to create masks and costumes.

This slice of film successfully captures the verve and energy of the inhabitants of the village as well as the creative power of the river meandering along in the background. Various masked figures were filmed engaging in bouts of spontaneous activity- folk dancing, musical performance, martial arts, or simply kicking a football around. The masks are scary and grotesque, but also latent with a kind of subversive humor characteristic of other of Johnson-Perkins’ works, which art critic Malcolm Gee has found to “…mediate ironically between the forms of art and the fantasy of childhood play”. The masked fiddler participant eking out a melodious yet slightly unhinged sound with manic movements of his bow is particularly memorable, visually recalling dreamlike images conjured from the brush of Chagall while his playing provides an atmospheric soundtrack to much of the short film.

On the second floor hangs Johnson-Perkins’ ‘The Assembly of the Gods’, where around 150 Gods gather against a backdrop at a temple in Katmandu, Nepal. Attendees at the viewing have fun picking out the various Gods on show, working out which is which- from which religion, faith or mythology. Among Kali, Buddha and Christ we are arrested by a truly terrifying image from a work by Goya depicting the Greek God of time Saturn, quite horribly devouring one of his children from the head downwards.  This is a reminder of our own mortality and a cue to pass around some cans of strong German pilsner (Be merry, my friends, be merry) smuggled in for this occasion.

Shortly after this Johnson-Perkins’ teacher of Chinese Art and Calligraphy, Jack Jiang (Recipient of the Golden National Prize for painting) presented his pupil with a sumptuous Chinese tea set to cement their friendship and honor the occasion of this exhibition’s opening. It was encouraging to see so many students of Nottingham’s Chinese Campus responding to the Gigapan pieces in this exhibition, taking part in a dialogue based on the significance and merits or otherwise of these works of art. Johnson-Perkins’ collaboration with the library and library staff, students and teaching staff on ‘This Starry Sky Lights Up Because of You’ can also be read as symbolic of a friendship of sorts and this event is indicative of enhanced curiosity and transfer of ideas across the cultural divide.

Ronan Kelly
English and Linguistics Department, The University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China
'This Starry Sky Lights Up Because of You' Solo Exhibition, The University of Nottingham Library China, November


The history and events of human kind is boundless in theme. To render this piece of work justice a refined taste is demanded, governed and guided by a cultivated intellect. Johnson-Perkins has placed before our eyes the history of the better half of mankind and the very worst. This work displays considerable learning and research which have been degenerated into pedantry. In the image before us the artist, most judiciously avoiding the larger and more ambitious duties of a historian, has occupied himself only with that portion of history, good versus evil, which is to be found in the scattered records which exist of the most famous and prominent figures in world history, and in pointing out the influence they exercised upon the politics, civil affairs, popular culture, religion, and civilization of humankind from the earliest dawn to the present day.

Johnson-Perkins diffuses much useful historical information to which the piece is devoted. In the work before us we must look for types of classes of people whose influence has been felt in different ages of the world’s history, then for a vast gallery of portraits indiscriminately collected together from every nation and every period. The influence of Western women is more marked and in the delineation of her position Johnson-Perkins has a much larger amount of material at his disposal. The advancing civilization Rome like Greece appears too. The key to understanding this piece of work is the fact that its impulses are mainly derived from intense religious faiths. When I look at this picture, founded on spirit of the current era, I see religious or rather fanatical elements combined with military passions, which have throughout the course of history ultimately won despotic power.

Dr David Holmes
International Studies Department, The University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China
Written about 'The Great Battle' work, exhibited as part of the 'This Starry Sky Lights Up Because of You', The University of Nottingham Library, China, November

A Trip into The Middle East
The Eastern world has inspired Johnson-Perkins, with immersion into a new culture and a world where he explored many unusual patterns and themes in his new works. In Oman the sun’s heat and light made the colors in his work radiant and the desert sands made areas of his sculpture appear deeply abstract and unusual. Somehow his new work bridges some traditions between two worlds like a Milky Way between East and West.

At the Scientific College of Design, in Muscat, he gave up much of his time as a lecturer and was always an intense but humble character and these traits can also be viewed in his artwork and in the rise of his ideas and ethics towards eastern society. A fascinating thing, which I noticed about him, is that he sees all things as interchangeable still-life’s and not as absolutes. All around his every day life, he notices art everywhere. A world made of everyday Installations. Dis-ordered and ordered proto-artworks.

He also explores a personal vision, which tend towards a meta-physical vision. His aesthetic and style mimic methods sometimes used in primitive or folk art, which one notices in Middle East, but there is also a rawness and detachment from traditional laws, which Johnson-Perkins also feels surround art, and one that he feels must try to break away from. I also think Johnson-Perkins on a very basic level, that he doesn’t like to see the things in front of him scattered or separate from each other, so he tries to connect the different parts to each other.

I would say that Johnson-Perkins work possesses a distinctive style and spontaneously. With these moot formations, which he creates In this sculpture. He converts everyday functional things into aesthetic objects, with a structure and configuration, like a wild form, which feels like a system of a living cell or organism. One also notices an evolution of contemporary aesthetics that expresses a language of our times, especially poignant in his use of contemporary objects and furniture made from throwaway plastic.

Dr. Marwan Imran
Scientific College of Art and Design
Essay on work made in 2011/12 on the College grounds. Muscat, Oman, 2014


For inspiration among the narrow streets of Venice, James Johnson-Perkins, conceptual artist who teaches at Newcastle (UK), stopped to tell readers Digimag of his residency for artists in Venice. Thanks to a scholarship from the Emily Harvey Foundation. The conversation with British video artist offers us some interesting ideas regarding possibilities for video-makers and artists in general using Gigapan technology.

Silvia Casini: First, how did you come to Venice?

James Johnson-Perkins: I'm here thanks to Emily Harvey Foundation, an American foundation that promotes and supports residencies for artists and curators. The Emily Harvey has very close relations with the Fluxus movement in New York, many artists began this movement of in the 60s-70s.

Silvia Casini: What was your goal when you ask an artist-in-residence "In Venice? What kind of project did you present to Emily Harvey Foundation?

James Johnson-Perkins: I showed them some of my earlier work, all about the concept of nostalgia and is linked with my interest in memory. I think I wanted to do something similar to what I had done in the past, but used Venice to draw new life, new inspiration.

Silvia Casini: Tell us a bit of your previous work on robots ...

James Johnson-Perkins: All the work I have done over the past five years has looked back to the eighties as I grew up in that period. I used materials and objects that derived from my childhood, so Lego and toy soldiers, for example. I also made some movies using old computers like the Commodore 64, I used the type of graphics of the Commodore. So basically, I still use items and materials from the past in a new contemporary context.

Silvia Casini: What you say is very interesting because the robots are often associated with innovative materials and technologies in futuristic scenarios, science fiction.

James Johnson-Perkins: I think some of the things that are happening today. Internet use or Skype, experiences are very similar to things we thought would happen in the eighties. When watching old science fiction movies. These films that were made in the past. Give us the kind of experience, a look back into future, because somehow the future is already past, has passed. I think I'm mainly interested in memory and use Venice as the background of my memories - it ironic that I was making pretend robots in the past, because now I use the camera connected to a real robot capable of these amazing panoramic images...

Silvia Casini: You mean Gigapan technology ...

James Johnson-Perkins: Yes, Gigapan technology, which enables the realization of these collages panoramic pictures.

Casini Silvia: What views as the landscape of Venice have reactivated your memories in particular?

James Johnson-Perkins: Since I arrived in Venice I was interested in Canaletto views of the Rialto bridge, and then I was thinking about television and video images of my childhood, such as images of The Lord of the Rings, so I made a composite image from these two ideas. In this image: there is "good" on one side and "bad" on the other. Basically I am mixing images from the media of the past like Doctor Who and superimposing this onto a renaisance Italian scene. Do you know DR who?

Casini Silvia: I do not know, I think not!

James Johnson-Perkins: So most of the things I used to love become sources of inspiration. The thing that interests me is that when you look at these panoramic images, they would be very large images from afar, and look like Renaissance paintings, but when you get close to look more carefully, little things, details, jump to the eye, emerge from the picture, and many of these things have international allure, like Star Wars. So when you look at the surface of these images. In the past I also used toys and things that triggered memories of other people and myself.

Silvia Casini: It 's interesting that you make the association between the concepts of past/present and distance/near in your artistic approach to your work.

James Johnson-Perkins: Yes, Its like thinking of a painting of the Renaissance, of five hundred years ago, as both a historical and contemporary image at the same time.

Silvia Casini: Gigapan technology is associated mainly Google, Street View and concepts of monitoring, almost voyeuristic. Instead, you talk about your work mainly in terms and concepts such as memory, nostalgia, play ...

James Johnson-Perkins: I like to use the latest technology. Coming to Venice gave me a great opportunity to have this background on which to place these ideas, I think for me that Venice is inexorably linked with the history of art, here, If i were in residence in another country I wonder where this would lead.

Silvia Casini: So you're thinking of using the same technology, Gigapan, in different historical, cultural and geographical contexts?

James Johnson-Perkins: Yes. So if I went to Paris or France, I could be influenced by some ideas from the, "impressionists". I could be influenced by the landscape of the Impressionists, but again, I would place these in a modern context.

Silvia Casini: So there is an element of performance that is present in your previous work

James Johnson-Perkins: Yes, sometimes I have used performance myself. However, the main element is the dynamic relationship of magnitude because they are large pictures that these details are really small, these are picture of peoples or objects, which arouses feelings.

Casini Silvia: I think it is worthwhile to underline how the viewer does not need to move with your body to get closer to the image and to be able to see the details: the viewer, in fact, can simply "zoom" with the technological support. Also your work makes me think about Chuck Close, with this ability to recognize a face, made from abstract patterns when you are at some distance from the canvas.

James Johnson-Perkins: Yes, I think it works roughly like this. These dancers are so tiny and you can zoom. I like the idea that these images are also a kind of game is a bit 'as used Where's Wally, with this little character in a tangle of happenings.

Casini Silvia: I noticed that you tend to use primary colours in your pictures.

James Johnson-Perkins: I almost always use primary colours and also in my performances, I like the idea of characters who wear strong colors, bold. They are Pop: I like things to be bright and bold.

Silvia Casini: These images ask the viewer to be looked at very carefully, and one realizes that there is something hidden in them.

James Johnson-Perkins: I have to consider whether to present these images in, shall we say "virtual" installations in in physical space. In this second case the feeling when looking at the image, one may say "here's a lovely image of Venice" or "oh, this looks like a classical painting, but when you get closer, you realize that something is happening, that there's this man standing on deck, wearing a mask, or the two dancers, or a little wheelchair. And these people who lean from balconies and windows, will activate memories and thoughts ...

Silvia Casini: And the audience is free to create their own narrative threads, with their association of ideas and concepts ...

James Johnson-Perkins: In a way yes. This is the first virtual photographic work that I have worked on... I do not know, I started using titles to lead the viewer into the work, for example, the 'image of the Rialto bridge I'll call "The Battle between Good and Evil", so that when one looks at the characters appearing they also to think about the relationships between these concepts. In the case of scale Bovolo it's called "The Snail" because that is what it is commonly named, and then somehow we use this reference when thinking about the images meaning.

Casini Silvia: We started talking about enjoyment of your work and how you're considering exhibiting these images. Are you thinking about using screens and computers or would you prefer your images to be installed in a physical space?

James Johnson-Perkins: I think I'd like to use both modes of exhibition, first of all I have to retouch images, no more than eight or ten. To start with I would place them in a sort of virtual gallery, then, later, I'd put this virtual gallery in a physical space, In an exhibition, I think a number of computer terminals available, through which to explore the images would be great, and maybe even projecting these onto a giant screens. Thus, despite the virtual dimension, people could browse the image projected onto the wall. Then I'd would also like to present these images as large format photographs. The nice thing is that both methods work, and one can also see these images outside the context of the art gallery, as virtual images.

Silvia Casini: It may also be projected onto buildings in real physical places ... ... so the work becomes a performative intervention on urban spaces.

James Johnson-Perkins: Good idea, I haven't thought of this ...

Silvia Casini: You work with a lot with items that come from everyday life and the world of games. What is your criteria in guiding you to choosing these items?

James Johnson-Perkins: I like objects that are weird or make me laugh or have a visual impact, or things that relate to my life and my memories. When I start working on something it is because I want to create something that can be fun, something that has a pop spirit, it is not serious. I mean really that I have a policy that guides me to make my work which is accessible to the viewer.

Silvia Casini: Have you considered the possibility of reversing the procedure? That is, use landscapes, scenarios that have been important in your life, landscapes full of personal recollections and use random items within them?

James Johnson-Perkins: Strange, the other day I was talking with my artist friend that is also doing a residency here in Venice, we talked about Giorgione, the three ages of man that Giorgione represented: there is a child, an adult and old man. I think at this point in my life, I'm still looking for the child, at some point I guess I'll start looking at adult and we'll see where this will takes me! One of the things that intrigues me is starting to use slightly more obscure themes, so to speak, because my work has always been focusing on having fun and maybe as I reach the adult stage ... my work will become a bit more serious...

Silvia Casini: Actually your pictures evoke feelings of a slight discomfort, even when using cartoons ...

James Johnson-Perkins: Do you believe so? I'm glad you say that. I would like to start doing things where i am less in control and to make my work less directly about my childhood and memories.

Silvia Casini: In fact, these small figures, these characters and miniature objects have lots of different meanings ...

James Johnson-Perkins: Well, if we start with the artist who does something, then often viewer sees something else and also the critic.

Silvia Casini: Well, this is often true within Pop!

James Johnson-Perkins: Yes, and Pop art is not always carefree don't you think? When you think of Warhol and his electric chair pictures.

James Johnson-Perkins: Another thing I have been doing. An artist friend of mine, of whom I told you before, has done some research on Giorgione and Aldo minutiae and thus came the idea that these two men have met. I liked this idea, so in collaboration we used masks and costumes to represent these people and this meeting, and made a gigapan image. I found it interesting this idea of disguise. This is also linked to other work I've done before.

Silvia Casini: Do you usually research ideas before you create possible narratives?

James Johnson-Perkins: I usually work very intuitively. But for some images I often research possible places to use: for example, when I go to Rome I would love the idea of a Gigapan panorama of the Coliseum with a toy soldier, which would make a connection between contemporary soldiers and the soldiers of the past, and establish these connections.

Silvia Casini: The choice of materials that your objects are made of, is important or not? Or are the items only interesting to you for their metaphorical value, for the stories that they may contain?

James Johnson-Perkins: You can not avoid metaphors if you make art. Curious that you mention this, now I think. Many of these items come from my personal history: for example, my father was in the army, so i have chosen to use a soldier, so these things usually have a emotional impact on me.

Silvia Casini: Some of these objects imply a close relationship with the body. Now that I look at some examples in your collection of (you're an artist-collector!), You have something to wear (a mask), something to play with (The soldiers) and and something to eat (orange). In short, these elements are performative. My last question concerns the residence in Venice. Of course, this was a great opportunity for you, so what other plans do you have.

James Johnson-Perkins: I'd like to show these works in Venice, but since the Emily Harvey Foundation doesn't have a gallery in Venice (but has one in New York). I will have to wait until i find some way to exhibit here. But actually I'm relieved to have more time to work on images. Of course I will return here and show these images whenever possible.

Silvia Casini: What are your plans after Venice?

James Johnson-Perkins: I'm going to do another residency in Slovakia. I'm interested in thinking about the conflict between East and West: there. I will do some research, because it is a former Communist country and there is a bridge that was completely destroyed. My "artist in residence" is closely associated with this bridge. I have also thought i would like to visit some concentration camps, which are an important part of the history of that place ...

Silvia Casini: You're becoming serious...

James Johnson-Perkins: Yes! Probably yes! Sooner or later we all do...

Dr Silvia Casini
Lecturer in Film and Visual Culture, University of Aberdeen/ Art Critic, Digimag International Magazine
Published, May 2010
The Emily Harvey Foundation Residency, Venice, Italy


In its first summer as Kube, the venue formerly known as The Study Gallery played host to artist James Johnson-Perkins and his Retro Robot exhibition. The gallery is in Poole, a short walk through Poole Park from the Dolphin shopping centre. Entering on the ground floor you are greeted by two robots made out of plastic storage boxes that tower over you. Judging by the enthusiastic reactions of my fellow visitors, the effect is particularly impressive if you are under five years old.

Primary coloured square mats and plastic building blocks provide a landscape for these and hundreds of smaller Lego robots, which are positioned around a course like characters in a platform game. Shelves made of coloured bricks allow the game to continue up the walls, around a large flat screen monitor playing a robot dance animation that looks like it has been created in ‘Logo.’

All this lends some colour to the modernist glass and white cement building, and the small feet running up and down the exposed staircases on the first and second floor link the three spaces together splendidly. As the Lego robots look on, the main business of the ground floor is the construction of robots out of scrap cardboard and packaging. Children crowd around the making tables in the middle of the room, supervised by volunteers. Among the best constructions I saw was a boy who turned his little brother into a robot with a cardboard box head and body.

At the foot of the first flight of stairs there is a turntable and a stack of 45s from the 1980s, from Joy Division to Kim Wilde, for visitors to select and play. I saw some lovely conversations here between parents and their children, introducing them to this strange old fashioned means of playing music. The retro element starts here, on the first floor there are 80s film quotes on LED scrolling message boards and you can play Pac-man. Text signs on the walls made out of Lego saying things like DUB BE GOOD TO ME are positioned so they seem to whiz around your head. There is also voice changer software and a screen that makes your face look funny. Kids entering this zone may be discovering Pac-Man for the first time but even the smallest of them are already very good with keyboards and mice, they run up and get stuck in straight away. There are also some big building bricks to build your own versions of the robots downstairs and a sound sculpture with wooden blocks.

As the Study Gallery, Kube built up an education programme that should be the envy of other venues in the region, with regular workshops for all age groups of children as well as craft groups for adults. Retro Robot integrates education elements with the main show in a real way and in doing so introduces young children to the concept of an exhibition, with instructions on what you can touch and what you can only look at, without the stakes being too high. The exhibition provided a focus for events throughout the summer, which brought in older children and teenagers to the gallery. A van full of media equipment parked in the courtyard gave people the chance to make animation and mix music. There were beat boxing workshops lead by Stu Robson and a learn to DJ event with Leon Hollings. On certain days you could come in and build remote control robots and on others visitors helped James Johnson-Perkins and some student volunteers build a Lego city to add to the display.

The exhibition brought more young families into the main gallery programme, and made it an attraction for tourists and locals in the summer holidays. Grandparents with visiting relatives also came in large numbers. This is the first exhibition the gallery has decided to charge for, but it was positioned lower than other family centred events in the area. The 1980s nostalgia element may have been an extra draw for some parents, alongside finding somewhere to entertain the kids. Once there, shared experience of popular culture came into play and created a convivial atmosphere. The young ones bonded over the Lego while the adults exchanged looks and comments about records and films in a pseudo-ironic way. As one of the visitor comments read, ‘I am now officially retro.’ Kube reports they had four times the usual number of visitors over the summer. The exhibition has helped to increase awareness of the venue in the local area, which was one of the objectives of their relaunch in April. Comments in the visitor book are full of vows to return to the gallery soon. Involving a group of volunteers to supervise the interactive exhibits has created more links with the community and a potential source of manpower for the future.

On the day the exhibition opened, local school children, students and office workers came together to dance like robots to Kraftwerk. The world record attempt for the largest group to do so failed by seven heads but was no less life affirming for it. Two hundred and seventy people turned out and dressed up in elaborate costumes for no reason other than fun. What better way to use popular culture to promote art can there possibly be?

Art Art Art Magazine, Dec 09
KUBE Exhibition
(11 July 2009 - 19 September 2009

Short story commissioned for Meteoric Toy, DLI Gallery, Durham, UK

I fell in love with you when I saw you dancing. Your towering, skinny tallness; the glossiness of your just-shaved jaw; your hands in awkward fists punching the air and out to the sides, you were marking territory and counting time. You always danced in the same spot, a little to the left of the mirror-ball so that its sparkles kissed your right cheek, glittering down your neck.

I was the kid in the lighting booth in the corner of the hall. Self-conscious back then, I never took my eyes off you. In step with the scrunchin’ bassline and zingin’ synths your feet in silver trainers made shiny diagonals while some girl’s dainty white pumps zig-zagged in time. I trained the yellow spotlight on your shoes and the cuffs of your jeans, wishing I might be that girl.

Flicking out your arm you caused another glittery rush, bending ninety degrees at the elbow and up, up, up like the second-hand of an alarm clock. Then two hands at once, in synch, out of synch, bending from the waist, swivelling and popping, spirals of disco light bouncing off your hips - you were the Sixth Form robotics champion, making like a machine while the rest of the school, all neon and black, body suits and baggy pants, stood in a circle and clapped you on.

Shrinking the spotlights to the size of tip-toes, I made my first move in deep blue. When you spun, I spun; when you jumped, I flashed up the wall and met you just as your feet hit the ground, then widened the pools of light so each of your feet had its own halo. You slid your silver shoes along the floor and raised your arms high above your head, so that you made an upside-down Y shape; I slid my halos along with you, changing them from blue, to purple, to red, to white. Swinging a third light into the mix, I beat a pink pulse on your chest.

After that night, I swear you used to glance into my corner sometimes and I’d run the spotlights under your ankles: you would hopscotch through them. Red, blue and yellow splashing your cool white jeans; spinning circles on the floor in primary colours, criss-crossing like Venn diagrams, hovering patterns on the wall behind you.

Becky Hunter
March 2009

From The material presence of colour in building paintings

By reducing imagery we intensify the power of paint. A new generation of artists is revisiting the “cool” gesture of modernism. They are interested in the minutiae of the gesture, the kind of colour that emerged from the paints of those times, and begin to identify with the “how and when” it was made. This has been seen as nostalgia but there is another aspect to this interest. By understanding our history visually we begin an explanation illuminated by hindsight. Our perception of what was is qualified by what is. What was hard edge is by today’s standards “handled”. What was saturated colour is faded. The shock of a synthetic acrylic fall of colour on canvas has a, quaintly and curiously, old quality. Size no longer engulfs us in the same way; we come to the modern canvas accepting of scale. We ask different questions in front of the work; what are personal traces and what is the result of the arbitrary mark? What does process offer as a way of entering another way of being?

We view the simulation of a painting in Lego, preceded historically, perhaps, by Roy Lichtenstein’s distinctively painted playful works. James Johnson-Perkins says he was inspired by Sean Scully to make his Lego works (mega Walls). Johnson-Perkins reminds us powerfully that the materiality of paint engages a desire that goes beyond the social and offers conditions that cannot be conceptually articulated. His is work that reminds us of the power of paint to offer moments of desire for the eye that both attracts and repels simultaneously. The “now” of Johnson-Perkins makes us look again at the “then” of Lichtenstein and enjoy the paint.

Professor Helen Baker
Building with Colour, Exhibition Catalogue, ISBN 0-9561206-0-1
Gallery North, Northumbria Unversity
January 2009

Exhibition Essay

“I spent my whole youth building imaginary universes with children’s building blocks”. James Johnson-Perkins

James Johnson-Perkins (born Dover, 1972) has tirelessly explored the media of children toys and produced a remarkably varied body of work, including playfully digitalized images, nostalgic computer graphics prints, gestural and chromatic abstractions and chart grid model. In November EXHIBIT at Golden Lane Estate presents “50 Robots”, a major solo show by British artist James Johnson-Perkins comprising of three new bodies of works. On the ground gallery space, Johnson-Perkins will display 50 new pieces of robot sculptures and furniture especially developed for EXHIBIT. These are composed by Megablock’s 2,800 construction bricks. For the basement installation, he has created two video projections using 8-bit computer graphics that beautifully explore the binary information shaped by animated geometric shapes. Alongside the video, akin to a three dimensional structuralism painting, is the third collection of work made up of a series of new paintings and megablock structures which, coincidently share the vision of Sarah Sze and Malevich, are essentially exploring spatial dynamics, colour relationship and geometry.

“50 Robots” is a continuation of Johnson-Perkins’ sculptural project developed since 2002. A close inspection on Johnson-Perkin’s megablock chart grid structure reveals the proximity and representation of the Swiss artist Paul Klee, especially with his work “Ancient Sound. Abstract on Black” (1925), which is characterized by “a rhythmic structure of squares and rectangles, assembled in a single musical movement in accordance with some visible law’ (Grohmann, W. 1967, p.102). Additionally Johnson-Perkins’ colorful megablock structures with these bright chromatic geometry adeptly arranged in a grid formation has created a remarkably stunning sheet of kaleidoscopic colour that transcends his favorite 80’s music into a visible form.

Johnson-Perkins’s oeuvre can be described as a nostalgia trip. His robots are in different sizes, colors and characters, which have powerful relationships between them. This new body of work concurs with the 1960’s Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans presentation but in addition Johnson-Perkins creates the attraction and curiosity of involving the viewer to discover the particularity amongst individual robot and take us on a journey that invites the audience to have a direct dialogue with different aspect of the artist’s psyche.

Exhibit Gallery
September 2008

Exhibit Gallery Link


From Futurama's Bender to Transformers, Cybermen and Wall-E, robots are right up there with zombies, ninjas and pirates as retro memes that are regurgitated by gen-X culture mongers, looking to connect with the ironic youth and placate their rabid nostalgia, until they over-saturate the zeitgeist and aren't fun anymore.  Still, in spite of this, robots kick ass, and until they become super intelligent and enslave us all, their diverse stylistics make them great subjects for artists; providing an aesthetic that is both modern and retro, clunky and sleek and a nifty metaphor for societal downfall, as demonstrated by H. R. Giger's sophisticated robots and Eric Joyner's adorable,'Rock em' Sock em' creatures.  Hell, robots can even produce paintings of their own, so their link with fine art is well established (even if their paintings suck...) and thus they now have an exhibition dedicated entirely to them.

Much like Daft Punk and the Beastie Boys, James Johnson Perkins has hit upon the winning formula for 'awesome', taking robots and 80s music and mashing them together with the glue of childhood memories – Megablox (Lego's less cool cousin) - to form 50 Robots at Exhibit.  The exhibition is on two floors and features a collection of various small robots sculpted out of the eponymous blocky stuff.  Each critter is a different colour and style, hanging out of custom-made mega blocks display cases, strewn across the floor and even hiding in Exhibit's ancient (and extremely narrow), 1950's spiral staircase. They are cute, colourful and cartoony, each one a little character in itself.  The exhibition is whimsical and naive, yet trendy enough to appeal to Japanese vinyl toy collectors and hipsters alike.

Kate Weir

December 2008

Conversation Interview between James Johnson-Jerkins and Andrew Quinn

AQ : Thematically in the broadest sense, what's your work about...

JJ-P : There's definite themes and influences in my work… My recent work is influenced by my relationship to childhood nostalgia, particularly the 80s. Choosing materials that are poignant - like Lego, 80s television programmes, 80s films and the themes within those... I recently had a film made for me, of Knightrider - but it’s made from ASCII characters, which look like Teletext...

AQ : [agreeing]

JJ-P : It's also saturated so it looks like it's just made out of eight colours...

AQ : ...It's also the same palette physically as a ZX Spectrum computer display

JJ-P : It's very close to this. I also made a film before that, which was... the A-Team using ZX Spectrum graphics. So I'm trying to use a subject matter that relates time-wise to the theme of the television programme that I'm using... there's also whole lot of references to computer games and the names of computer games in my work. I make these floor pieces and call them things like Jet Set Willy...

AQ :Yes

JJ-P : And the word pieces make references to other 80’s things... like Tron... or.... songs like... Blue Monday, a New Order song. The next thing I want to use is Action Men... I can see the Action Men in the same space as the robots...Up until now I have been making robots out of Lego... I suppose we grew up in a generation where ... there was a lot of science fiction...

AQ : And science fiction cartoons as well...Like Transformers... and other kids TV programmes with a character which would have a pet robot assistant...

JJ-P : Yes...there was. Twiki... from Buck Rogers and a robot in The Black Hole and Battlestar Galactica.

AQ :Yes.

JJ-P : ... I also do a performance work called John Peel where I wear a mask and become a robot myself - I DJ as this robot, play 80s music and I do robotics...

JJ-P : So in my exhibitions there's lots of different things happening simultaneously… there’s music, things to look at...and things that move… like my geometric and robot animations... One of the things I've really enjoyed in my practice and in other people's work is when it is playful and skews boundaries of how we would normally see or present something… you know, for example, Wolfgang Tillmans, when he puts his photographs onto the wall they are in very different places... like posters... and sometimes the edges a poster are ripped or slightly skewed, so you view them in a very different way to the standard idea of framed works which are hung at the same level…for me now, when I have an exhibition, there’s no definitive way of how things will to be shown, it's like an experiment...

AQ : ... as long as there's enough... space to interact with it...

JJ-P : Because of the way that I work, I'm not precious about that. I guess what I'm trying to say is - if someone wants to come in and break a piece off, I'd be quite happy to patch it in a different way...

AQ : If a child comes in and picks up one of the things and runs round and puts it down somewhere... then...

JJ-P :... well yes, to a point... that’s OK.

AQ :  [laughs]

JJ-P : So in essence I like to think that people will relate to what I do in a very childlike way…a lot of people have actually brought this up…my exhibitions are like a…

AQ : ... a children's playroom?

JJ-P :...yes, so it doesn’t matter if the robots are nicely composed in the middle of the room. What actually matters is that there's a mass of things that people get a sensation that triggers particular thoughts of their own childhood or they might be reminded of playing games with their own children...I end up having lots of conversations with grown men and women about... when they were... ten...I think everyone enjoys a nostalgia trip...

AQ : Yes when I went to university for instance…one pub conversation that was guaranteed to get everybody involved was to be talking about... 1980s television programmes or something... it was a conversation everyone could engage with... and enjoy... remembering the theme tunes and what the characters were called.

JJ-P :... yes, 'cause it triggers an emotive response of a time where... possibly you they happy. [both laugh]

JJ-P :...well they were not burdened by responsibility, well, not everyone is... When I was thirteen years old, I went to a youth club and we used to watch the A-Team on the TV and play ping-pong and it would be... really fun...I end up telling similar stories at art galleries with people who are used to spending time talking seriously about art.. I end up going to these places to show work and listening to curators... like a counsellor… about their childhood experiences...

AQ : [laughs]

JJ-P : I meet these important art people and we end up sitting on the floor, surrounded by loads of Lego bricks, talking about Action Men and Cindy or Madonna. [both laugh]

JJ-P : I also relate my work to the history of art e.g. pop-art and architecture and quite serious things but at the same time I also like to…There's of an interesting dichotomy between those two things. You know Picasso was very much interested in making art as a child would... I think this notion is really important. I’m also fascinated with the mythology behind stories of childhood…my favourite is He-Man. He-Man is the master of the universe, has a magic sword and he can turn a cat... into…a battle cat. He's fighting against Skeletor, who... is Death... you know he's got a skull for a face.

AQ : ... and a black hood...

JJ-P : You know, this is telling children, symbolically, that they have to be really strong, believe in magic. To avoid death... when I look at children's stories now I think, well, they're a bit crazy, and to think we grew up with all these... and... I wonder how does that affect us as adults when we reinterpret these tales? In some ways the stories are not necessarily a bad thing, teaching children to believe in magic. But in other ways, we live in a culture where there are wars, and maybe these stories have programmed in us into a sort of acceptance, you know... with good guys fighting the bad guys and then...

AQ :…if they win, they're the hero...

JJ-P : ...yes, and the politicians happily tell us that we're fighting against the bad guys and that makes you feel alright about it, 'cause we're like He-Man and we're all on the side of the good, but it's not that simple...

AQ : ...did anyone ever ask Skeletor if he had a difficult childhood... you know... Did he get bullied for having a skull for a face...[both laugh]

JJ-P : ... but there are good stories too like Star Wars… the great thing in Star Wars, is the bad guy, Darth Vader…has got a good side too…

AQ : ... it's less simple than just saying 'he's a baddie, he's just a baddie'...

JJ-P : ... yes... it's not so black and white... that's why I like it. I think I'm not specifically trying to address those types of things within my work, but I think that with my robots, they're different sizes, have guns and some of them are bigger and smaller, and there’s power ratios between them and I sort of see them as having an essence of these stories and...

AQ : ... character...

JJ-P : ... yes they're different characters, some of them are women, some of them are men, some of them have got two heads – and I use my own symbolic language. If one’s got two heads it means something very different to one with a hole in its body... These qualities also relate to sculpture in different cultures and times.

AQ : So is there particular model of the robots which is yourself.

JJ-P : ... They're all me. They're all just aspects of my psyche... well, one of them might be me, but I wouldn't tell you which one... [both laugh]

AQ :'s the one wearing the dress, with the wings...

JJ-P : ... well, if you want to look at them like little fetishes... then... you don't want to give away your secret robot, do you...

AQ : ... yes... [laughs]

JJ-P : ...I don't want to have someone come along and do voodoo on it. [both laugh]

AQ : how did you relate or treat your Lego when you were playing with it for the first time as a child?

JJP : The reason I chose Lego initially as an artist, to make sculpture, Is, it's the most basic material. I suppose what's nice about Lego bricks and with drawing too, is there are no boundaries - you can draw what you want, and you can imagine things up. Also I’m probably living out a fantasy... that I probably would have liked to have fulfilled as a kid, but never had enough Lego... [both laugh]

JJP :  As a child I remember building these tiny little spaceships and we built...

AQ : ... them out of three bricks, so you could make a full fleet of them...

JJP : ... yes, so we'd have a hundred of them, and it was so good having so many...

AQ : I remember, strangely my own Lego playing, I’d make something that my parents we're really proud of and I've got these in a photo album.

JJP : You've got some photos of these?

AQ : Yes... amongst those I've got pictures of some Lego models I made when I was four or six or ten...

JJP : Aww... that's lovely... I'd have liked that...

AQ : But what's funny, is there's no record of any of the drawings or paintings... just the Lego. So the ones that were really good would stay on this little shelf in the bedroom as it was 'finished'... until, I needed the bricks again… for a while I would try and keep it, keep it there as “I'd made this beautiful ornament” and put it on a shelf for... two days... and then go “ohh... I need one of those flat four bricks off it”...

JJP : That’s similar to what I do now... but I don't need to break them down... and these things have become artworks...

AQ : …and you can keep them forever and just get more bricks.

JJP : But what's different about what I do now is I’m playing around with... a whole sort of schematic... of art and the history of art …and lot of artists I am interested in are using similar nostalgic references,like Mark Wallinger’s silver Tardis or Jim Lambie's floor pieces, which are very 80’s.

AQ :  Where will your work develop onwards... from...the 80's. In ten years time will you start looking at... nineties nostalgia from when you were in your late teens or early twenties...

JJP : ... I don't know whether I'll stick to the eighties or go into the nineties…but I can definitely see myself over the next ten years making five hundred robots... so there's even more of a critical mass… I can imagine huge spaces just totally filled with them... I can also see myself making more of the video works based on eighties programmes, so I could go on for the rest of my career exploring the eighties, or exploring childhood and using these particular materials.

Andrew Quinn
Director, Red Gallery, Hull, UK
28th June 2008
Worthing Street, Hull, UK


Robot Dreams was the Red Gallery's summer exhibition. Newcastle artist James Johnson-Perkins staged a thematically consistent show. I met him briefly at the opening and I gauged him to be a relatively young.

This would explain his enthusiasm for growing up with 1980's paraphernalia - home computers, such as the Atari and the ZX81, Lego bricks, and American TV action shows such as 'Knight Rider'. All of which were fed into 'Robot Dreams'; with Lego bricks in particular being his prime medium in this and in other exhibitions of his.

It was very 'boys and their toys' territory. In the first room one encountered a Lego model of a robot character - a kind of totemic figure or, possibly, a species of 'imaginary friend'. In room two we watched the robot perform silent dance routines, in blocky retro graphics, on a monitor. On Johnson-Perkins' web site these gymnastic vignettes are performed to quirky pop music pertaining to the era.

In the third and final room was a large scale projection of a favourite episode of 'Knight Rider', digitised - perhaps as seen through a robot's eyes (if, properly speaking, they have any) - into cascading swathes of numbers, letters and keyboard characters. As an artist he is playing a different, much more self-aware kind of game – a 'cat-and-mouse' routine between the artist and his audience. And artists are frequently accused of merely 'mucking about'. Robot Dreams cheekily (and knowingly) seems to confirm this. But, personally, as a devotee of dawdling and daydreaming, I enjoyed the brash irreverence of these exuberant displays, which have an equally knowing nod towards the Pop Art of yesterday ('trashy' materials, obsessions with media phenomenon, etc).

I also remember the 1980's. Thus the boyish motifs in the exhibition did, for good or for ill, resonate with me. Those frustrated and foolishly frittered away afternoons trying to complete platform computer games such as: 'Manic Miner' and 'Jet Set Willy'. And adopting television as a surrogate moral source (no doubt some bright spark has done an awfully clever thesis on the merits of 'Air Wolf' in contrast to those of 'The A-Team').

Philip Wincolmlee-Barnes
July 2007


I suspect that this collection of ‘robots’ by James Johnson-Perkins is a self-portrait. A collection of super–heroes, who are all versions of the artist. Each figure strikes a heroic pose and don’s marvellous headgear, jacket or boots. The palate of poster colours, (red, yellow, green, white, and blue), reflect the Lego*, building blocks they are constructed from. Surely to be a robot the automaton needs to be kinetic in some way. These 20 cm tall figures are perhaps, models of robots. They are static, their movements implied.

James Johnson-Perkins retains a focus on the possibilities of playfulness as art in his practice. This is increasingly overt in his work and never more so than in the choice of Lego as his modernist referencing material. Play is serious, pre-school education as typified by the Reggio Emilia method of creativity as a learning experience for under-fives is well established as a bed-rock for the rest of an individuals life-long learning.

James Johnson-Perkins’ practice is always playful and often collaborative. However, this is a solo project that has links to other solo works, including low-fi digital videos influenced by 1980's home computer technology and featuring single blocks of colour, which could be described as digital versions of the Lego bricks.

The scale of this project, currently a hundred or more figures, is part of its success as an art-work. The process of designing an ever-increasing number brings with it a challenge of invention, limited by the possibilities intrinsic to the material; this will become increasingly difficult as the collection grows and is to my mind what the work is about.

* Lego, named after a Danish phrase 'leg godt' meaning playful

Dr Helen Smith
Director, Waygood Gallery
Newcastle Upon Tyne
Play, Exhibition Catalogue
October 2007

Waygood Link


Collaborations between artists and scientists often produce work which neither the artist nor the scientist would have dreamed of. Although there are massive tracts of common land between the fields of art and science, it is in a way of looking at the world that artists and scientists approach their work differently. Visual Artists often work with notions of what constitutes a finished piece in their mind, while practitioners in the field of sciences work through a process where rules and methodology are to the fore. James and Conor's collaboration at the Red Nile space throws light on these different methods of working, while also producing the potential for some beautiful artworks that demand both scientific and artistic scrutiny.

For their period of residency in the Red Nile space, James and Conor will further explore questions they have begun to ask in the realm of chaos and randomness. The Fibonacci numbers are used as the basis for creating colourful grid of numbers, an exercise in concentration as much as a dazzling set of figures. Their video works make use of the concept of the automaton, utilising James' penchant for lego constructions in an animation.

Complimenting the lego structures are an array of films that overwhelm you with their colours and ever changing blocks of primary colours. They take for their basis, randomly generated colours and operate through using basic shapes and regular transformation to become a captivating visual knock-out. Like the eyes of the old snake Kaa that hypnotises Mogli in the Disney film of The Jungle Book, these films have a hypnotic effect, and play with the way that our brains process colour and movement. They make you want to keep looking at them, in order to try to process their patterns and movement.

Conor and James' work overlaps in many ways, but it is their different approach to achieving similar aims that is the most rewarding aspect of their collaboration. James' work has previously set about making colourful and hypnotic films using colours from the colour wheel and an artists eye, but the addition of the potential to utilise a mathematician's principles, random colours and programmed sets of coordinates gives rise to an infinite number of pieces of work. These works have the feel of being lighter and structural for their lack of human input, but the capability for exploring colour and shape by iterating the creative process repeatedly using a machine.

Matthew Cowan
Director, Novellus Castellum
James Johnson-Perkins & Dr Conor Lawless, Red Nile, Exhibition Catalogue
September 2007