James Drinkwater studied at the National Art School, Sydney (2001) and has held solo exhibitions since 2004 in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and internationally in London and Singapore. A survey exhibition The sea calls me by name was held at Newcastle Art Gallery in 2019.
James Drinkwater’s work has been included in group exhibitions throughout Australia and internationally in Berlin, Leipzig and London. He has been awarded the Brett Whiteley Travelling Scholarship (2014), the John Olsen National Art School Life Drawing Prize (2002) and has been a finalist in the Wynne Prize, Sulman Prize, John Glover Art Prize, Paddington Art Prize, Doug Moran Portrait Prize, Dobell Drawing Prize and the Salon de Refuses.
James Drinkwater has undertaken international residencies in Germany, Kenya, Paris and Tahiti. His work is held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artbank and several significant regional and tertiary collections.
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I LOVE YOU SO MUCH I CAN'T STOP SAYING GOODBYE
19 OCTOBER TO 6 NOVEMBER 2021
There is a physicality in paintings by James Drinkwater also evident in footage of him at work in the studio. He attacks his surface with thrown paint, hits it with rags, slices with the palette knife and scrubs frenetically with fists. When he turns the painting upside down or on its side and declares it finished, there is a kind of head spin and theatrical presentation that takes Drinkwater’s aesthetic into a subject matter that is driven by his life.
The intensity of his practice, which he characterises – hair on end, t-shirt and beard paint-encrusted – as “hammering away,” is prolific, with a powerful work ethic and a level of success to match. “When you are available, working away in the pits, you become a satellite and it, that special other, can visit.”
Drinkwater began drawing aged five, spending hours at Ron Hartree Art School in Newcastle as a teenager before going on to study at the National Art School in Sydney immediately after graduating high school. Early success saw him win the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2014. By then, he had already spent three years in Germany (2009–12), during which time the Marten Bequest Scholarship took him to Leipzig – and Kenya (2012). He also explored the Northern Territory in 2015, before the Whiteley Scholarship took him to Paris in the same year, after which he spent time working in Tahiti (2017). However, the decision that he (and partner Lottie Consalvo) made, to return to live and work in Drinkwater’s hometown of Newcastle, is central to the narratives he draws on in his practice.
In a figurative expressionistic style, his painting, drawing and sculpture open into enigmatic narratives explored in series. In recent years, Drinkwater has delved into family stories, such as his mother’s recollections of her grandfather in Looking for Urchins and Louis Ferrari (2018). Then a note from his son inspired I Love You More than Paintings (2020).
In Drinkwater’s practice, the past, Australian art history and the world are pummelled into the present. Reflections about painting itself, the ability to explore a creative life unfettered, are writ large in his body of work in a style that conjures up iconic Australian painters (Gordon Shepherdson, Sidney Nolan, Margel Hinder,Grace Crowley, Fred Williams) – anyone, Drinkwater says, who “has that extra thing about the material.” There are also references to European and American artists – Lee Krasner, Pablo Picasso, Georg Baselitz, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, William Scott. Drinkwater describes his approach as post-ironic modernism. “That is the best description. Those guys are my heroes. I converse with them in my studio all day as I try to shed their influences. I talk so directly with them that I want them to come out.”
In 2019, a survey exhibition of Drinkwater’s work was developed by Newcastle Art Gallery under the title the sea calls me by name. The show celebrated his connection to the coastal and industrial city he calls home, and the family heritage that drew him back. The biography explored in his work is defined by this place, discovered anew as his own two children become imprinted by Newcastle. This echo of the experiences Drinkwater had as a child decades earlier is visible in the layering, the subject matter, the resonation of place and pace in the paintings. Intriguingly, the exhibition includes work from as early as 2009. This earlier work is more abstracted, yet in colour and spatial sensibility pays homage to the artists who preceded and continue to inspire his practice – as does the Australian landscape.
In the catalogue essay for the sea calls me by my name, Anne Ryan writes that in Drinkwater’s work we see “the primacy of the personal; [his] identification as an artist is parallel to his work, which is indivisible from his response to the world around him. More recently, as his family responsibilities have grown, the smaller orbit of family life has provided new inspiration for his work, finding the microcosms of intimate relationships and daily life to be infinite in their potential.”
Every work is a new stage on which Drinkwater’s art life plays out, extending meaning and energy into other places, entering and exiting – the sea, the table, the studio. “All these things play out in those theatres; their stars are your loved ones. Intimacy becomes material and as relevant as a piece of clay.” It is palpable, this sense of Drinkwater in practice, in his place, echoing the past with the present and building a richness of personal and artistic influences from his version of the pits. An alchemy performed within the theatre of his studio.
extract from Louise Martin-Chew 'James Drinkwater: In the Pits' in Vault, issue 34, 2021, pp 46 - 51
Place the sea shells we found at my feet
across rock pools
diamonds are freckles on the sea
sun kissing your new cheeks
my shoulders will hold
until the girl is gone
how will you let me know?
when you enter the ages
So aim your bow into flowers
until Parnell’s park lights turn on
you are a lamp upon my shoulders
when you are making your smashing star
You march in like a brass band
and I wonder if you know
guitar strings decorate the column
I LOVE YOU SO MUCH I CAN’T STOP SAYING GOODBYE
My son Vincenzo said this to me at the Victorian iron school gates one clear winter morning. An excerpt from life which placed my heart in my mouth. This is probably the clearest example of how I work, a conception point which heralds a new group of paintings.
I AM A COLUMN. WITHOUT ME YOU ARE RUBBLE, WITHOUT YOU I AM ONLY DECORATION - I said to my family as the house was waking, the working harbour nearby sounding its horns. Columns like picture frames, like boats perform many functions ... protection, safety and aesthetics are all at play. A column has a decorative finessed veneer with a tough interior of stone, concrete and steel. They hold up structures and ensure the bundles are safe, for they need care.
My primary function is to preserve, protect and carry those that I love. I AM A SUPPORT, YOU ARE MY LIFELINE. I will hold my ground if you take a blow, I won’t leave you to wreck and ruin.
I LOVE YOU MORE THAN PAINTINGS
15 APRIL TO 3 MAY 2020
JAMES DRINKWATER IN CONVERSATION WITH TAI MITSUJI FOR ART COLLECTOR
JAMES DRINKWATER BY TAI MITSUJI FOR ARTIST PROFILE
There is a generosity to James Drinkwater’s work that lures you in. It’s there in his robust application of paint and rich materials, and also in the vulnerability contained within his art. a part of this artist’s life is inscribed into each of his works, which chronicle the contours of his existence. In Issue 47, Drinkwater sat down with Artist Profile to reflect upon his practice.
How do you describe your artistic practice to strangers?
When people ask, I always tell them that I’m a house painter – because I’m inevitably covered in paint. It’s trickier when someone probes a little further. I’m a painter-sculptor. I’m the son of schoolteachers so I saw people get up and go to work every day. I feel like a worker, but ultimately, I suppose, I’m an artist. I guess, I make journal entries about my life, and the medium I use is paint. I’m trying to document the passage of time, so each picture is the result of an experience or an event. After all that, people look at me bemused – and wish they didn’t ask!
Why do you think the labels of ‘painter’ or ‘sculptor’ rest more comfortably with you than ‘artist’?
My heroes were all of that ilk – Fred Williams, Leonard French, Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner – they were all workers and painters. I also think that that way of reducing down is very Australia centric – we try not to give what we do too much gravity. But I think it levels it all out, you know. You’re a painter, you’re a sculptor, you’re a plumber, you’re a butcher. I like that. It gives people an entry. It isn’t alienating, it’s an opening rather than a statement.
So what inspires you as a painter-sculptor?
It’s kind of abstract, but I see my life as entering and exiting a series of theatres. The ocean is a theatre, my studio is a theatre and my kitchen is a theatre filled with drama and intimacy and chaos. My input is found in these everyday theatres. For instance, my painting James James Ocean Face (2018) has my children and my partner in it, wrestling their way down to the ocean. Now that I’m living in Newcastle again, I’m forced to go back through the halls of my youth to these theatres, through the lens of my own children. I started calling my son ‘Ocean Face’ about twelve months ago, and he asked me ‘Dad, why do you call me that?’ and I replied, ‘Because, my boy, your face contains the entire contents of the sea.’ And he totally got it. There is something so magnificent about that.
You have moved around a lot, from Newcastle to Sydney to Melbourne to Berlin to Paris; how does place affect your work?
For a lot of years, I thought that I had to go somewhere exotic – the desert in Kenya, or Tahiti, or the south of France, or Paris – those locations felt like important pilgrimages for me. But I realised more and more that all you have to be is available; it doesn’t matter where you are.
Tell me a little bit more about that idea of availability.
So last night we were at S.H. Ervin Gallery for the twentieth anniversary of the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, and my painting, Port de Bras (2014) was there. It was good to see it again, all these years on. It has these distinct three-pronged little titanium white marks on it. I had a studio at the time in an abandoned glass factory, and I got in one morning and pigeons had walked through white paint then all over the works that were lying around, leaving three-pronged groupings all over the paintings. At first, I felt pure terror and shock – my show was the next week! – and then I thought, ‘How wonderful, I never in my wildest dreams would have gotten three tiny brushes and dipped them in white. How lucky am I?’. I think that speaks to the idea that everything is of value, everything is useful. It was a turning point for me.
Just how important is the idea of play to your work?
To make art, I think you have to be in the sandpit. There is a laborious manual element to my work, but within those long hours is when you stumble and arrive at the ‘genius’ – that thing that you’ve been searching for. My practice isn’t methodical. I almost see it as a voyage of sorts; you strap yourself to the mast of a ship – I know this sounds dramatic – and you set out to sea. Hopefully, eventually, you find land. People ask ‘How do you know when a picture is finished?’: when it feels authentically me, when I’ve arrived back to myself. You have to leave yourself and explore new terrain to discover more about yourself. One painting I did called Arriving in the East End (2018) is a triple portrait of (my partner) Lottie and my two children – and it’s about that. It’s about departing and arriving all in one.
Did you always know that you were going to be an artist?
Growing up, we went to church on Sundays and my parents had various ways of keeping the four children quiet during the service: a crossword for my brother, books for my sisters, and it was always drawing for me. Drawing was a compulsion. I don’t look back on those works and think that they were particularly brilliant, or better than my two-year-old peers, (laughs) but there is a sincerity and conviction about them. Moving forward to when I was about seven or eight, we would be tearing around my cousins’ house, playing tips on roller-skates, and my aunty would sit at her kitchen table listening to Jethro Tull and Paul Simon, smoking fags and drinking cups of tea, and she would paint these very beautiful landscapes. I think if she were born in a different generation she might have been a full-time painter too, but it just wasn’t taken seriously back then. I was so enchanted by this act – it presented the practice, the ceremony. I was totally seduced by the whole thing.
You’ve done so many fantastic things, but what would you point to as your proudest artistic achievement?
I think the most triumphant thing is that I get to come to my studio every day and nobody can tell me that I can’t. I get to come to my sandpit.
This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 47, 2019
James Drinkwater in his Newcastle studio, 2019. Photograph Dean Beletich
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