Julie Johnstone is an Edinburgh-based artist, independent publisher and curator. She established her imprint Essence Press in 2001 and in 2002 took over publication of the hand-bound poetry journal, island, from Robert Ford, attracting contributions from Laurie Clark, Gael Turnbull, Gerry Loose and many others. Johnstone also edited less, a journal series exploring the aesthetic possibilities of minimalist language and form, showcasing work by renowned Scottish and international poets including Eugen Gomringer, Jane Hirshfield and Robert Lax. Alongside this she began publishing small ‘poem-objects’ in collaboration with poets such as Richard Price and Alec Finlay.
Although identifying primarily as an artist and artist book maker, Johnstone practices a linguistic and formal play which is distinctly poetic. For instance, her aesthetic of meditative attention resonates with that of contemporary Scottish poet and some-time collaborator, Thomas A. Clark. Her work regularly employs coloured printed text and sonic repetition to emphasise the materiality of language. Bridging both linguistic and plastic modes, then, her work can be interpreted in relation to the Concrete poetry and minimalist movements, and to contemporary poetic practice in Scotland and beyond.
A key strand of her current practice moves away from language understood in a straightforward sense as words, exploring instead the representational capacities of colour, line and photographic image. For example, recent works have exploited the capabilities of the inkjet printer to produce minute gradations in colour, thus presenting a challenge to the perceiver to detect, and discover significance in, tiny shifts in opacity. However, Johnstone retains a deep interest in text, continuing to produce delicate handbound volumes, poem cards and other objects which emphasise the placing of words on a surface.
Johnstone’s apparent thematic restraint in fact enables an array of formal experiments, with concepts such as quiet, place and perception, providing material for inexhaustible arrangements. Seemingly simple readjustments to the placing of a word from one page to another, or from one work to another, for example, offer new perspectives and demand renewed attention. brevities, Johnstone’s 2018 collection of minimal text works, exemplifies this, transposing earlier card and vinyl works onto book form.
Often, the text and medium of Johnstone’s work function together to reveal the referential and reflexive qualities of language. A hand mirror bearing the inscription, ‘a tool for reflection’ (2012), hints at language’s reflective power, not only in allowing us to articulate thoughts, but like the mirror to reflect the world around us. A series of badges made between 2010 and 2016 suggest the ways in which small, everyday objects may be ‘easily missed’, or ‘glimpsed in passing’. In other works such as ‘landscape’ (2010), language is used to highlight the relationship between the artistic medium and the natural environment; carefully torn pages evoke distant hills, becoming a landscape in themselves. A 2016 box work uses a simple gesture of reversal to defy expectations in terms of our bodily relationship to space: the outer surface is labelled ‘inside’, sliding open to reveal the word ‘outside’ hidden within.
Since undertaking a Creative Scotland residency in Kyoto in 2015, Johnstone has developed a significant and growing body of work inspired by the philosophical and artistic traditions of Japan. She is a regular exhibitor at artist book and small press fairs in Scotland and further afield, also showing work alongside diverse practitioners of book form as a member of the AMBruno collective.
She worked at the Scottish Poetry Library in various capacities from 2000, and was the Librarian from 2006-2017. She launched By Leaves We Live, an annual artists’ book and small press fair at the Library which ran from 2005-2013, and was instrumental in building up a special collection rich in visual poetry and artists’ books.
Her text works are included in The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century (Hayward Gallery, 2015) and her book works and cards are held in numerous collections including Tate Library, National Art Museum at the V&A, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Yale Center for British Art, National Library of Scotland, and in private collections. She has exhibited in gallery spaces, such as in the private library of William Zachs in 2018. The Scottish Poetry Library has an extensive collection of Essence Press cards, box works, handbound volumes and other poetry objects.
Eleanore Widger (2019)