NI artist looks at grim topic of war through familiar everyday objects

Support-Backup by Stephen Johnston, oil on canvas. For more see gormleys.ie
Support-Backup by Stephen Johnston, oil on canvas. For more see gormleys.ie
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Co Down artist Stephen Johnston has created a striking series of artworks which look at the “heavy subject matter” of war through familiar objects.

Elements of War – an exhibition of 18 oil paintings by the Clough-born artist – will be on show at Gormleys Fine Art, Dublin, from October 10 to 26 and Gormleys, Belfast from November 1 to 16.

Known for his work on still life which deals with the subjects of life and death, Johnston’s new series presents a natural evolution in his artistic style.

Seeking to make the ordinary extraordinary, Elements of War navigates the grim topic of war and presents it through objects familiar to the viewer, though imagined in a different context.

He said: “War is a heavy subject matter, and I have tried to work in a way that is not disrespectful to war or its consequences.

“I wanted to approach it in a different way, with a little more light-heartedness to allow the audience to converse with the work, to explore relationships and ideologies.”

One of his pieces ‘Red Herring’ presents a sea bass atop a red rotary phone. It is symbolic of a nuclear button encased in plastic, and speaks to seeing the element of miscommunication, misdirection and covert speech.

This interest in the friction between opposing ideologies is a central theme in his work, and he explores the idea that society is becoming more polarised, and that we are, from childhood, subconsciously exposed to the idea of choosing a side.

Some of the 32-year-old’s works depict children’s toys morphed into something else entirely.

His work ‘The Messenger’ shows a Postman Pat van turned into a tank, and in another we see a Thomas the Tank Engine figurine with a gun attached.

He said: “It is a play on ‘them and us’. Even from a young age, we have different teams and different identities and sides.”

His work aims to encourage a conversation about the elements that make up war, such as power, propaganda, resources and indeed the humans behind it – from those involved in creating the ammunition, to those with more of a direct hand.

It comes at the topic in an indirect but still hard-hitting direction, which allows the audience to offer their own opinions on what is a very serious matter.

Stephen also comments on the lack of resources available in wartime, and the need to use objects designed for one purpose in another way.

His ‘Support Backup’ shows an old bicycle with a shovel and a fire extinguisher attached. It becomes a make-do fire engine – one that cannot possibly perform its job as well as something designed for that purpose.

In his work the objects stand out, depicted hyper-realistically against vibrant backgrounds.

The artist studied Fine and Applied Art in the University of Ulster, graduating with first class honours.

His work has been displayed in the Saatchi Gallery in London, RUA Belfast and RHA Dublin.