James Drinkwater’s painting, drawing and sculpture are fuelled by the theatre of his life. He finds the best material in the intimacy of family and the place he chooses to live, the industrial city of Newcastle.
FEATURE by LOUISE MARTIN-CHEW
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). Another series about vulnerability and holding his family close emerged in I am a boat – without me you are drowning, without you I am empty (2020), and his February 2021 exhibition The Boxer: When I was young I said my prayers at Nanda/Hobbs in Sydney captured memories and musings about previous generations, using paint – and poetry.
Drinkwater’s uncle Greg, “a boxer and a poet,” is the subject of the exhibition, which explores the creative thread that ran, mostly ignored, through the men in the generations that preceded his own, living in a notoriously tough city that celebrated industry over art. Two Fisted Puncher and A Crowd Pleaser – Common Ground Found (2019), a conflation of romantic gesture and colour, layering and spattering, sees a figure emerge, dark-faced and hollow-eyed, over-written by violently etched motifs that obscure any clear view of this man from the past. Drinkwater writes that the work is “loaded with elegies, some overt and some concealed, which talk to both the public and the private identities of the man. For I too have come to understand that as painters we are doing far more than just making pictures – studios, lights, paint … all that paraphernalia to disguise the act of reflection.”
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.”
In an exhibition to be held later this year, his second for 2021, Drinkwater continues to refine his motifs, from imagery connecting The Boxer to the earlier Louis Ferrari series about the great grandfather he never met, to new works which take pillars – supportive, connective, crucial foundational elements – as their subject. They evoke not only the theatre he creates in his own life, but also the architectural heritage of Newcastle.
“The imagery is quite circular; earlier and recent works bleed back into each other. There is a long red stripe with little lights through it that denotes industry in Newcastle, which is also visible on the captain (Louis Ferrari) in the war. It became the ribbon on his uniform. It also bled into the boxer ropes around the ring and the sash of the champion, and now the pillar. In the Louis Ferrari series the sea urchin represents both the complexity of rare illness and the beautiful and strange animal that lines the ocean floor. Then it is used like seeing stars in the knockout image, and in the staining of the canvas (and the boxing ring). This circular motif moves through all of those gears.”
Sculpture also has a larger role in this new exhibition, reflecting recent studio practice where Drinkwater oscillates between drawing, sculpting and painting. “My DNA goes inside everything and they [the mediums] constantly refresh each other. I find I don’t get bored, and the imagery is more alive too. Mr. Squiggle or Georg Baselitz – we all try to trick ourselves, to set up a whole bunch of problems and flip them to resolve.”
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.