- When24 June - 20 August
- CuratorTerence Maloon
Early recognised as an exceptional talent, James Drinkwater has never toned-down the intensity and bravura of his approach to painting. His work has mined a vast legacy of modern art – Australian, British, American, French – as if all of it remains relevant, fresh and available to him. Now, on the brink of turning 40, this is the first survey of his prodigious past. While his paintings evoke figures, landscapes and interiors, they are also meticulously composed abstractions, distinctive for their complex and opulent fusion of texture, colour and spatial intrigue. This exhibition will be accompanied by a major publication.
AT MID-CAREER: James Drinkwater is curated by Terence Maloon.
The exhibition opens on Friday 23 June, 6pm, and will be officially lanched by Terence Maloon. No reservations are required to attend.
Image: James Drinkwater, We are clumsy now on this southern beach, 2016, mixed media on board, 140 x 120 cm. Private collection.
Buy Now / $50 + $10 postage
- TitleDrinkwater: At mid-career
- SpecsHardcover, 25.5 x 35 cm
- PublisherPublished 2023 by DHG Publishing, Nanda/Hobbs & Prism Editions
- DetailsFeaturing texts from Ralph Hobbs and Nicole Hauser, and a conversation between Terence Maloon and James Drinkwater. Edition of 500 copies. Publication design: Joshua Andrews. Photography: Ben Adams, Dean Beletich.
- Price$50 + $10 postage / Buy Now
In conversation with Terence Maloon
TM: When did your involvement with painting begin to look like it was becoming a vocation?
JD: From very early on. I had an aunt who was a painter, she was quite a good technician who had some facility. She painted at her kitchen table. She was a single parent with three kids – we would all play together at their house. That was the beginning for me. I was intrigued by what she was doing. There was a bit of ceremony and mystery about her procedure, plus she had books on the French Impressionists. Her paintings represented places where she wanted to be.
TM: How old were you then?
JD: I was eight, and I realised that I wanted to do this. I must have proven to her that I wasn’t just being annoying or importuning, and eventually I was given a spot at the table.
TM: So you received substantial encouragement from the very beginning.
TM: And you were persuaded that painting was…
JD: That it was a way out.
TM: A way out?
JD: My aunt’s house was near the housing commission flats, near the greyhound racetrack. It was a very depressed area – a backwater, very neglected, very gritty. You could hear the trot of horses being walked on the road around her place. My aunt would paint lighthouses and little cottages in English fields. She was nostalgic for the old country. She remained “very English”. She made endless cups of tea, she smoked, she was very cool. She liked to play records by Jethro Tull and Aled Jones. She was musically gifted and could sing harmony to any melody. She was a wonderful motivator for her kids and all the cousins. She would go to the beach with what seemed like half the neighbourhood and swim laps and then drop everyone home afterwards – a very neighbourly sort of person.
TM: So how did it come about that she was a painter?
JD: I think through art classes at school, even if she was discouraged from taking it further.
TM: It was her way of letting off steam?
JD: Yes, I instinctively understood there was a motive of escape. I could feel the poignancy of the little glowing light coming out of a cottage window she had painted. I understood that painting was not only a way to communicate feelings and travel in your imagination, it could also be a way of leaving – of leaving Newcastle.
At my school I think I was the only kid who was interested in art, but I had a friend whose mother put us in an art clinic for a school holiday program. There were five or six kids in the class which was held in what was called the Ron Hartree Art School up here on Wolf Street. We did tie-dye and coil pots and that kind of thing. After two weeks I didn’t want to leave. I felt that I had found my people, found my place. I was bereft when it was over.
TM: So at school, did you feel that you didn’t fit in?
JD: I did fit in. I could make it work for me. I could fit in with the boofheads, with the girls, with the dags. I enjoyed having that social mobility. School was a wonderful experience for me. I learned how to be a social animal, I loved being part of a community. And I also enjoyed pushing back against it. I enjoyed being different. That was certainly part of it. In addition I was able to stay on – my mum kept me enrolled – at the Ron Hartree Art School. Ron Hartree is a gorgeous guy. He must be in his late 70s now. We still talk when we bump into each other in town. He’s very kind, a very good person. His art school was a humanitarian project for the community.
He would carefully instruct me in this and that, and slowly he let me graduate to oil paint. When I was about ten years old he said to mum: “You know what, I think James would benefit from doing life drawing, but only if you are comfortable with him doing that”. Mum thought about it and said yep, she trusted his advice. So I attended life drawing classes on Tuesday and Thursday nights from the age of ten till I was seventeen. The classes were very sociable despite the big gaps in our ages. I really liked the people who were there. They would go on to a cafe afterwards, but I wasn’t allowed to go with them – it was a school night and I was expected at home. Going to cafes, drinking wine and of all that seemed very European and ever so sophisticated.
TM: So your family was happy that you’d found a preoccupation, even if it threatened to become consuming.
JD: It was consuming. I was the youngest of four, and I think they felt they were approaching the end of parenting by that time, so if I was happy and focussed, that was okay. My parents were both schoolteachers, mum taught primary school.
TM: And your siblings?
JD: Well, the oldest, Prue, is seven years older than me. She has literary inclinations, she’s very gifted in drama and directing.
However the fate of a first child isn’t the same as the fourth. They were supportive of her aspirations, but it wasn’t the same tailwind that I had. Also, maybe unconsciously, maybe unintentionally, there could have been a systemic difference in how you bring up girls and how you bring up boys.
I don’t know, I can’t be sure. One advantage I had was that I showed ability at an early age and could convince people that it wasn’t just crap.
Mum and dad were more than willing to go along with it. I remember dragging mum to go shopping: “We have to go to Spotlight, I need to buy cotton duck, and then we need to go to Mitre 10 to get timber and a box saw and staples, I need to make stretchers for my canvases.” Mum might have been teaching all day, but she’d say: “Okay, alright”. There were times when I would drag her to Sydney or Canberra: “I’ve heard about this exhibition of drawings from the Uffizi, we’ve got to see it”. That would have been in 1995, I was eleven years old and totally hooked on art, just like some kids are hooked on heavy metal music or something like that.
TM: After that, when you went to art school, it wasn’t a happy experience.
JD: That’s right. I went to the National Art School in Sydney, but I only lasted a year. I was too young. I was in love with my town, I was in love with the sea, I was horribly homesick. I was in love with someone in Newcastle as well. There were things I really enjoyed at art school, but I wasn’t academic and when it came to “art theory” I couldn’t stump up and get it done.
TM: Who taught you at the National Art School.
JD: Peter Godwin is the one that stands out for me. He was a fantastic drawing teacher. I still love his work – those interiors he paints, they’re very beautiful.
TM: That leads to something I’ve been wanting to ask you: I sense that you have a strong need to be in your comfort zone
JD: Yes, absolutely.
TM: So what does that entail? Being a “homeboy”, staying close to your roots in your home town, having approval and moral support from the people closest to you, being in a situation where you feel appreciated and understood?
JD: All of that, absolutely.
TM: So, when you were at art school in Sydney, you were anxious about losing connection with your roots, fearing that you’d return to Newcastle as a different person?
JD: Yes, absolutely.
TM: Do you think those misgivings would have influenced the kind of art you make? For example, would it put a brake your paintings getting too abstruse or too esoteric? It seems to me that you’re very considerate in not wanting to alienate the people who love and understand you?
JD: I think that’s right. In the final analysis it’s important to be in a town where people know who you are and where you know who they are.
TM: It’s called a “knowable community”.
JD: That sounds right.
TM: Some historians have studied the growth of cities during the industrial revolution. They attribute the social rupture and turmoil of the time, at least in part, to “the loss of knowable communities”. Some cite Dickens’ novels as spot-on diagnoses of the crack-up of pre-industrial society. One century later Kafka could write black comedies about a non-society or an anti-society which could only be encountered in an imperilled, paranoid way.
JD: Communities continue to exist, they’re achievable and accessible if it’s what you want in life. Am I a communitarian? Absolutely. It wouldn’t be possible for me to do the things I do without knowing that I belonged somewhere. I know it will sound a bit bizarre, but I’ve just been involved in a promotional campaign for a local beer, Newcastle Beer. It was part of a big commercial campaign. The pitch was to identify Newcastle Beer as local and working class, and they brought everyone into the mix – these old pro surfers and football players, and also architects, a DJ, and they asked me to be in it. There were the Johns brothers, the famous rugby league players, and there was me. In the commercial, a guy comes up to me in a bar and says something like: “You are that artist James…”
To be honest, I don’t really believe I’m an artist. I look at some of the artists I meet and I think: “If that’s what I am supposed to be, I am not like that at all.” “Painter” I’m comfortable with, “artist” is too much of a weird thing. I think I must be a very odd fish for my generation.
TM: People of your generation would more likely take offense if they were called “painters” rather than “artists”.
JD: That’s true, but I feel incredibly displaced …
TM: As a contemporary artist?
JD: In the contemporary, by the contemporary, and I don’t mean that in any jaded sense. I’m not for these times. I feel I was born at the wrong time. I’m not meant for the modern world. I like buttons and shirts and coffee machines and manual things that you can use, I like post offices and shops…
TM: Things that are disappearing from people’s lives, or seem to be draining away in substance and significance. Still, you’re able to make a difference with what you do, you can compensate…
JD: For what is lacking, that’s true.
TM: And if you think of someone like Morandi…
JD: It’s funny that you mention Morandi, because whenever I start shaking my head over things, I wonder: “How did we get from Morandi to here in so little time?”
TM: Yes, but it no longer occurs to us how isolated Morandi must have felt cooped up in suburban Bologna in the middle of the twentieth century, doing the stuff he did.
JD: I guess. Basically I wasn’t able to function in Sydney, so it made sense for me to come back to Newcastle. In Sydney I couldn’t get a studio in a family friend’s garage, I couldn’t generate work that was meaningful to me. I remember those exercises we were set: introduction to painting media, tonal studies, still-life… I was thinking I have done all of this for almost ten years at the Ron Hartree Art School. I never felt I was superior to what was expected of us, nor did I think I was better than the others in the class or anything like that. I just felt an urgency to put it all behind me. I was desperate to have my own studio and to paint independently.
TM: One advantage of those highly structured foundation courses is that they can give great clarity about what you don’t want to do and where you don’t want to go. They can force on you a very clear idea of what direction you have to take.
TM: We’ve acknowledged your need for a comfort zone, and now you’ve been describing a discomfort zone.
TM: You’ve expressed misgivings about where we are in time, and it’s true that we seem to have abandoned, or we seem to have been abandoned by so many of our ancestral traditions and values. It might appear that we’ve been shipwrecked by art history, at least by the history of modernism – and to have been sent straight to the Apocalypse, to the Last Judgment and to Purgatory without passing GO. I understand how people can take this view, even though I think it’s an exaggeration. It strikes me that, in your work, at a certain point, those oppositions started to imply one another and to interact with each other. That’s a very interesting phenomenon for me as an art historian. As if in recoil from the hegemony of… let’s call it “post-modern, post-painting, new media art”, you’ve cast your net over a vast practice of painting which you continually reference, you summon up a whole lot of exemplars and predecessors…
JD: My milieu is all my heroes in the past and the present. It’s an honour thing – I think of it that way – it is about honouring the past and keeping a common endeavour alive. Don’t get me wrong though, I still watch very keenly what is happening right now as well, and I play with the things I’m seeing in the world. I am looking at contemporary art more than people probably realise.
TM: But you’ve created a vast galaxy in the mix.
JD: A universe, yeah
TM: Do you know, when I started teaching in Australia in 1980, I was told that, as far as the college was concerned, students were only required to know about what had happened in art since 1968.
JD: God, that’s so dark and blinkered. This idea of cutting and wiping and cancel and delete, I can’t bear it. From very early on I got to know an art dealer in Cooks Hill, Mark Widdup. He ran a gallery here in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. I used to go in there a lot, and I used to go to the Von Bertouch Gallery very often too. Mark Widdup gave me a show when I was 17. There was nothing good about it, but it happened, and I remember him saying then that I was like a sponge – even at that early age. He said: “What we are realising about you, James, is that you’re a sponge.”
TM: But it’s not like you are unselective and unself-critical.
JD: No, but I’m always absorbing my world. If it’s a sponge, it’s a discerning sponge.
TM: Still, if the informational intake reaches critical mass, your propensity to absorb can start to look apocalyptic, which might give it a very contemporary tenor.
JD: As the result of an information-overload – if that’s what you want to call it. It can appear that some of my paintings end up having so much going on in them, it can look like a cacophony. They’ve become a big mixing pot – but that’s what the world is like, isn’t it, that’s what our society is like? I can’t think of these things entirely negatively. I think variety and complexity are desirable qualities. I am trying to make new again the good old fashioned things, like a day at the beach, a ferry ride, a convivial lunch. I am trying to make things like that new and relevant.
TM: Simple pleasures in barbarous times?
JD: Barbarous times, precisely… and to offer some form of hope, rather than responding to the horrors with horror – which is what I see too much of in contemporary art.
TM: I think you’ve always been concerned to maintain a degree of accessibility and inclusiveness in your work.
JD: Yes I think so.
TM: Not dumbing it down necessarily, but making sure there’s something to hang onto: you make sure that an image has a handle that even an inexperienced viewer will be able to grasp.
JD: That’s very true, yes.
TM: Has that always been a consideration in your work?
JD: I think so. I think there could be a bit of over-giving, wanting to give too much rather than too little. I think it may be a very Newcastle thing. It may be a way of reassuring people that it’s not a trick, I’m not showing off, I’m not being lazy or cynical, I’m not being clever, it’s not their approval I’m seeking.
TM: It’s creating a transactional space for someone to…
TM: Yes, inviting them in.
JD: I want my paintings to be accommodating. I don’t want to alienate people. I don’t want anyone to feel like the poor kid in the Gucci store. I love it when a bus full of school kids enters a gallery, I love it if they can find something in the work to relate to.
TM: So it’s a form of honour: not disqualifying, boring or repelling viewers, including school kids?
JD: Yes, absolutely.
TM: Popular culture isn’t something your work shuns.
JD: No, it doesn’t.
TM: But it’s not something you can separate out from the general impression your works convey; it’s part of the democratic quality that you want to establish. I’ve just been reading Melissa Bellanta’s social history of larrikins in Australia. Larrikins keep turning up in Australian art and they’re a feature of your paintings as well. To Australians today, a larrikin is a kind of trickster figure – anti-authoritarian, non-conformist, self-deprecating, deflating of pretention and pomposity. Bellanta explains larrikinism as a reflex against the embarrassment of our social inequality, as a gesture towards populism. For artists it’s a reflex against “fine art” and the elitism it usually relates to.
JD: I see the larrikin as the opposite of the dandy in art.
TM: So could we elaborate on that? To me they look like idiot figures – I don’t mean that in an insulting way. They have smashed-up faces. Some are creepy and zombie-like, or like a death’s head. Some make me think of the “portrait of Dorian Gray” – you know, the magical portrait that grows old and grotesque while its subject remains young and beautiful. In this case it’s the painted image that is mortal. But tell me: does every painting need have to have a face
JD: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I remember Tony Mighell pointing to a little face at the top of one of my paintings and saying: “James, you couldn’t help yourself there.”
TM: And is that how you conceptualise those big paintings?
JD: Absolutely. I think of a painting being like a skin. It is a body.
TM: I assume you would be a big fan of Braque because of his virtuosity in composing with texture.
JD: I am, yeah.
TM: Around 1910 he and Picasso began sourcing materials from hardware stores and incorporating them into paintings, adopting the house-painters’ combs for imitating marble and wood grain, selecting various patterned wallpapers. They started adding sawdust, marble dust and ash to their paint to vary the surface texture.
JD: To make the surface more objective and concrete, yes, I like very much the idea of resistance, tension and material density. I have occasionally left paintings in the rain without meaning to. It had an extraordinary result, because the image didn’t change, but the sense of its material resistance did.
TM: There’s a story about Braque taking his paintings outside and setting them up in his garden. The reason he did this was to see whether the paintings could hold up in terms of how real they were, as objects in their own right, against the rocks and plants and other stuff.
JD: Gee, that seems such a modern thing to do. It makes perfect sense to me, even if for others it may seem a wacky thing for a painter to do. For me the reality of the medium is the paramount thing, it defines the object and the way you are going to read it.
Newcastle, 5 May 2023