Catalogue Essay 'The Native Grid II' Blue Mountains Cultural Centre 2015
by Caterina Leone
Art speaks to us without words. Sometimes those words need a translator, or at least someone versed in the particular idiosyncrasies of the dialect. In contemporary art, it is unusual to find work capable of speaking a language that needs no translation but is understood by all. James Blackwell’s work comes close.
I have been privileged to acquaint myself with Blackwell’s work in ways most wouldn’t: firstly, as a viewer, captivated by the work in a gallery. Secondly, I have been granted access to his studio and seen works in various stages of progress. Thirdly, I have worked in a gallery that represented him, and have seen firsthand the reactions of others to his work on a daily basis. I have been witness to the work’s effect on others, the stillness that overcomes them, their total absorption, often lasting minutes.
What is it that enthrals these viewers so much? When asked, most would mention at first, being amazed by the sheer amount of work, patience and attention to detail involved in their making. All though, would eventually hint at, if not articulate, the manner in which the works are a catalyst for meditation. The complex grid structures capture and hold the eye, silencing the mind. The making of the works is emblematic, too, of meditation, requiring an unusual amount of mindfulness and mental clarity, with a drifting mind potentially disastrous. In today’s media-drenched, fast-paced world, such stillness is a rare occurrence. Blackwell states: “This is my rebuke, my quiet protest to the unstoppable noise which permeates our culture.” The protest is working.
The use of natural materials delights viewers. It binds the works in their recognisable and physical world, thus making any abstract ideas more accessible. Once again, most viewers seen to grasp, even if they can’t articulate, the exploration of harmony, repetition and symmetry in the works, and how this is a reflection of the natural world at the infinitesimal level. Unlike work that imitates or interprets the landscape, Blackwell’s work is inspired by nature, but separate from it; a parallel creation, birthed by man and nature combined. Because of this, they are a reminder of people’s ability to create. Furthermore, the works remind us of our unity with nature. They destroy simple man/nature dichotomies, just as they destroy those of wilderness/civilisation and chaos/order, revealing instead the geometry that lies beneath the surface of everything in the world.
In his work, the natural materials- things collected on walks, usually unnoticed and trampled underfoot by others- are given new life. They line the shelves of his studio, neatly organised into separate glass jars, as full of potential as caterpillars. He doesn’t always know their common, let alone scientific name. It is inconsequential; their inherent qualities- colour, shape, weight- are of interest, not names set by humans. He shows us their beauty. Dried- more to the point, dead- purple flowers become joyful funambulists cavorting across twig tightropes. Seeds sit proudly on paper pedestals, arranged in a rhythmic formation dictated by their colour and shape. The paper, often bought, sometimes homemade, is given equal role in Blackwell’s choreography. Its symbolism is multiple in that its origins are natural, yet transformed by human hand, in its connotations of death and rebirth, as well as environmental destruction brought about by man. It parallels the other materials in that it is often overlooked: what is usually valued are the marks made on top. In this way, Blackwell gives it too, a new life and context.
The natural materials Blackwell uses also hold connotations of death and rebirth and the passage of time. Varnished to preserve their beauty and colouring, they are suspended in limbo, neither dead nor alive, yet living through their new role as art and symbol. There is poetry in this that needn’t be fully understood for its impact to be felt. Again, no words are needed.
Complementing the works on paper are Blackwell’s ‘Pods’. Often mistaken for ceramics, they are a combination of paper, wax, earth, pigment and other natural materials. They utilise the ancient and universal form of the vessel and are thus loaded with all the implications of inner and outer, symbol and utility, tangible and intangible. The connotations of the vessel with the feminine give rise to a beautiful sense of unity in their creation and veneration by a male. In these, more so than in the paper works, there is a sense of the passage of time, of the cyclical nature of life and death, stemming from the fragility of their materials. They are containers of beauty and to me recall John Armstrong’s quote from ‘The Secret Power of Beauty’:
“The beautiful object creates in the mind of those who attend to it the spiritual home that reality does not provide.”
Blackwell was a winner of the Exposé Program run by the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, which promotes a selection of emerging local artists. His resulting exhibition, Native Grid II, will include exciting developments for the artist, such as installation works and larger scale pieces. Blackwell was recently awarded the Windmill Trust Scholarship (NAVA) and the money will go toward the cost of producing this exhibition. It will be held at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre in February 2015.
The Memory of Amnesia: Exhibition Essay Bathurst Regional Gallery
I first saw James Blackwell’s work in 2003 shortly after he started working in
paper and found materials in an exhibition at the Spirit Level gallery in
Devonshire Street Surry Hills.
At the time I was taken by the beauty of his assemblage/collages which in
their quiet intensity provided a meditation on the apparently random
processes contained within nature.
His deep love of landscape and his interest in how the passage of time
changes its appearance was apparent even then.
O Beata Solitude (Oh happy solitude) is James’ first solo exhibition at the
Wilson Street Gallery and contains 25 new landscape assemblages as well as
an installation Hatch.
Included in the exhibition are a number of works based around the first nine
hexagrams of the ancient text, the I Ching or The Book of Changes. These
works with their broken and unbroken lines made from natural materials recall
the abstract line arrangements of the hexagrams. The I Ching has as two of
its basic beliefs the dynamic balance of opposites (ying and yang) and the
acceptance of the inevitability of change. The random casting of the
hexagrams provides a way of creating order out of apparent chaos.
The idea of order is paramount in James’ work. The symmetrical grid structure
in which he arranges the smaller elements made from natural materials and
folded paper provides the work with a classical stasis in which the ying and
yang are in perfect harmony.
The installation Hatch, constructed on a large 10 x 10 grid is made up of 100
perspex boxes containing coloured sands/soils from the Blue Mountains and
Central Australia. Each box is surmounted by 100 papier maché pods. The
rigidity of the perspex grid is softened by the individual differences of the
papier maché pods. As in nature all “leaves” are not the same.
The starting point for James’ work stems from his personal experience and
relationship with the Blue Mountains landscape and its various colours,
textures and forms.
His preferred materials of choice is sourced from his own “art supply store”,
the valley floor and ridges of the Blue Mountain National Park, and includes
gum and bunya pine leaves, grass tree stems, stone and coloured earth. To
this he adds more domestic materials including fettuccine, stained tea bags
and folded paper.
In traditional art making practices such as painting, the artist may use colour
from a tube to evoke and express a response to landscape. In James’ case he
favours taking the colours and textures directly from the source. The work
becomes an ephemeral yet tangible interpretation of his experience in the
James says: The meditative artworks I create reflect an Australian chromatic
palette, subtle in tone and key, each colour existing together in a quietly
James has always had an affinity with the Australian landscape and he vividly
recalls his childhood in Jindabyne, riding his bike out through the isolated
Snowy Mountains countryside exploring nature.
The works also have a strong sculptural presence and while working James
uses a strong light situated to one side to accentuate the shadows caused by
the raised edges and cutaway sections. The time frame for their creation
varies: some are realised in the space of a week while others can occupy his
attention for up to 12 months while many more are destroyed in the creative
The particular pleasure of viewing James’ work is two-fold. Firstly, it provides
the pleasure of recognising elements from the landscape. Secondly, it
provides a fascination with how the work has been created. What follows is a
mediative reflection on the symbols and allusions contained within the work.
Any exhibition based on the landscape draws on the viewing public’s past
experiences and assumptions about “landscape art”. This exhibition engages
with this prior experience and provides the viewer with new ways to observe
the idiosyncratic, subtle and mysterious bush environment.
James has created a body of work which speaks of nature’s transience, its
beauty and its ephemeral quality. His aim is to infuse in us a sense of our
responsibility to the environment in which we live.
The artwork created is not figurative or about landscape in a representational
way. It is however, a reflection of the fascination and celebration of the
landscape and its diversity of textures and colours.
The repetitive/grid process of making the assemblages/collages lends itself to
a meditative quality and invites us to go beyond the superficial experience of
recognition. A common initial reaction is a fascination with the tiny repetitive
motifs, the lines, holes, dots and dashes which create rune-like figures and
appear as elements of a language that defies decipherment. Yet the works
also make visible the often transitory but profoundly significant impressions of
being in the landscape.
With our growing awareness of global warming and climate change, any artist
who focuses on the fragility of landscape provides a valuable tool for reconnecting
the viewer to the beauty of our natural world.
Often an artist can explain it most succinctly. In 2008 James said: The artwork
I create centres on the themes of nature, silence, structure and meditation.
They are sourced from the 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.
Director, Bathurst Regional Art Gallery
Artist Statement 2013
...western culture was set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it. - NY Times Published: August 2, 2009 Michael Kimmelman
The onslaught, pace and ubiquity of change in modern life has said to have altered
the way our brains are being wired. Our ability and need to adapt to this continuous
flux leaves us reaching out for something concrete, something familiar, something
certain. My art practice is an attempt to reestablish a connection with nature and offer
pause and reflection in an intimate space as an antidote to the barrage of stimulation
which has taken host in our ever evolving technological world.
My anchor is the landscape in which I live, the Blue Mountains of NSW. Here, the
seasons are distinct, reliable and inevitable. This landscape adapts to the backdrop of
seasons and offers inspiration in it's repetition and symmetry. A value embodied in
the artwork I create.
Using natural materials found from the landscape, I 'play' with symmetry and form
using paper as a support to create 3 dimensional assemblages which require an
intimate viewing. I am aware of repetition and symmetry in my life on many levels;
From the continuance of daily life and the activities which we need to carry out
repetitively such as bathing and brushing ones teeth, to the reiteration of form found
at the intrinsic and infinitesimal level of nature.
The elements which make up the matrix of my work represents our
interconnectedness with our environment. My artwork is not representational in any
sense, but still it represents to me, the landscape in it's undulating form, colour,
symmetry and rhythm.
There is a relationship between the collecting, sorting, cutting and arranging of found
materials on the surface of the artwork and the internal processes, which seek to find
some kind of equilibrium and internal tangible aesthetic.
Paper is a reconstitution of fibers found in nature, and a wonderfully diverse medium
to use. The textural quality of paper complements the materials woven and
constructed on the surface of the work. Sometimes, I may remain with a theme and
variations of a particular way of folding paper to reveal a structural representation of
simplicity, elegance, and quietude. Symmetry is the vehicle by which I strive to attain
“Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.” - Emerson, Ralph Waldo