James Blackwell – A Catalogue Essay for BRAG, 2010

James Blackwell – A Catalogue Essay for Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 2010, by Dr Peter Shepherd

While living in central Sydney, some years ago, a friend used to prepare a weekly itinerary for me, so we could visit interesting exhibition openings. He was quite excited one week in 2003 about works at the Spirit Level Gallery in Surry Hills by an emerging artist, James Blackwell.

We arrived to find a packed gallery and a riveting display of paper assemblage works. Despite the excitement and noise of the crowd, the works spoke with a quiet, calm authority and demanded a second visit for further viewing.

Here were miniature realms of order and beauty created with precision and utmost care. These meditative pieces required the viewer to enter into a quiet contemplation and at the same time they resonated with the same meditative processes the artist employed. The skill and patience alone required for the construction of these ordered worlds could only be wondered at.

I did not have the opportunity to meet the artist at that time. Soon after moving to the Blue Mountains in 2005, I was introduced by mutual friends to an artist, James. In true Australian fashion this was the only name given. This artist, like many, was quiet and not very willing to talk about his work. A little later, however, when I was able to visit his studio, I discovered I was in the presence of James Blackwell and once again surrounded by his inspiring work. Since then, I have had the opportunity to talk regularly with James about his work, the processes he uses, the concepts and ideas that drive his creativity and to see new works being developed.

James acknowledges a number of artists who have played an influential role in the development of his own work. Among these, he mentions particularly Maria Fernanda Cardoso, originally from Colombia, but now working in Sydney and Hossein Valamanesh, originally from Iran, but a long-time resident of Adelaide. There are some obvious strong elements that link the work of James Blackwell to these artists – the gathering of natural materials, animal, plant and soil; the use of these in works which rely on repetition and patterning; the creation of complex pieces by this seemingly simple process; and also the creation of simple pieces, where the simple combination of several elements can make a powerful statement. Despite the similarities, which can be found here, each of these artists has their own way of expressing their own particular world – physical, mental and spiritual.

The assemblages of James Blackwell, based on a symmetrical grid system, reflect the sense of order that he sees as the core of his life. He relates the order within his creations to the order and symmetry he sees in nature. The design and construction he describes as a simple domestic process – a weaving, or knitting together of the chosen elements – quiet, contemplative, calming and meditative. Sometimes the simple act of picking up a small object with tweezers will determine what happens next. He describes this as a representation of his internal state.

Some of the works rely simply on the assembling of cut and folded paper. These pieces of monochromatic beauty take on an added, quiet depth through their reaction to the light of the space in which they exist. Any change in the world around reflects and is reacted to within the work itself.

Other works combine this use of paper with the telling placement of small pieces from the natural and domestic worlds – a tiny seed, the smallest piece of woven leaf, a fragment of a teabag – repeated and stitched into the fabric of the grid. These works, with their muted and limited colour palette reflect the world the artist moves in and loves with an intense passion. This is the expansive world of the ridges and the valleys of the Blue Mountains National Park and the enclosed world of his own garden. This bushland treasure trove provides him with an infinite supply of materials, with infinite variation through the change of seasons and the incredible differences from one location to another.

As he collects his materials in the bush, decisions are being made about how they will be used and where they will fit. James loves the process of picking things up from the soil, a process that brings him back to the earth, something he describes as a re-grounding from our synthetic lifestyle. The material is often detritus, already fallen and rotting. These objects, inanimate and discarded, have had one life and are now given a new life – a resurrection. This process of destruction and reconfiguration is a strong reflection of this artist’s view of the physical and spiritual worlds we inhabit.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of engaging with James’s work is the intense sense of discovery induced in the viewer. From the first distant view of the patterning, the viewer is drawn in to explore the detail. It is here that there is simple joy in finding that the set of fine lines is actually a row of tiny sticks; that the collection of small circles is a group of tiny gum-nuts; that the little brown mark is a brush teased from the fluff of a Proteus.

In 2009, for a major solo exhibition at Katoomba Fine Art gallery, there was a new direction taken in the production of the first ‘Pod Clusters’. At the time, James spoke of his uncertainty about including these works, but that he thought they might provide a balance to the assemblages. What a counterpoint this was! These beautiful constructions display all the same precise thought and concentration as the assemblages, but have their own contained beauty and strength of renewal.

They are extremely tactile, inviting touch, but at the same time have elements that warn and repel. In this they again reflect the many plants and creatures that can be found in the Australian bush. Each small and extraordinary pod has a relationship to the others, yet has details, which make it unique. They remind James of something growing, or evolving, almost like eggs, from which some chrysalis creature has left for a new life. Initially structured from the simple domestic item – teabags – the pods are then layered with soil and objects from the natural environment.

There is a strong whimsical element to these pods, which seem increasingly to be taking on personalities and lives of their own. The latest examples appear to be ready for a bit of fun, with more elaborate protrusions and feeler-like extensions reaching out further from the original cell.

There is a similar growing freedom in some of the latest assemblages, where the grid is almost subsumed by the twisting lines formed by the natural elements. Here, James has allowed the twigs to form the grid, so the artist and the material work in harmony to follow where the pattern may choose to go. This floating structural framework, supporting and enclosing the translucent skins of the dyed teabags, creates a layered space, which combines for us the essence of the natural world and the construction that is used by creatures within that world.
To give a further, final insight into the work of this extraordinary artist I can do no better than to quote from Richard Perram, Director of the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, where he uses James’s own words to conclude a catalogue essay for the 2009 Solo Exhibition at Katoomba Fine Art.

James said: The artwork I create centres on the themes of nature, silence, structure and meditation. The works are sourced from an investigation of the minutiae of nature and its diverse elemental forms. These earthy works remind us of the matrix of life and the surprising forms that can grow from it.

Dr Peter Shepherd
September 2010


Dr Peter Shepherd has a long and distinguished career as a teacher, university lecturer, artist, musician, theatre director and conductor and is a former Dean of the Faculty of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong. Currently, he serves on the committee for the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre.

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