Why artist James Drinkwater has no time for doom and gloom
Australian Financial Review - Special Wrap, p.S1, S2, S3
21-22 January, 2017
by John McDonald
If an advertising agency set out to design a new generation Australian painter who combined all the most attractive aspects of his predecessors, the result would be James Drinkwater.
Still in his early 30s, Drinkwater has impressed everyone with his energy, ambition and work ethic. In conversation he is polite, sensitive and full of enthusiasm. His contemporaneity is rounded off with a few discreet tats and a beard slightly too unkempt to qualify him as a grade-A hipster.
A Newcastle boy, like John Olsen and William Dobell, Drinkwater has been drawing and painting for as long as he can remember. He claims to have begun at the age of five, when he became fascinated by the small landscapes his auntie would paint in the kitchen. Tearing around the house with a gang of cousins, young James was stopped in his tracks by a first whiff of paint.
At the age of 10 Drinkwater borrowed a documentary on Fred Williams from the library, and watched it over and over, until his mother wondered if there was something wrong with him.
Between the ages of 10 and 18 he would attend Ron Hartree's art school in Newcastle, going to life drawing classes every Tuesday and Thursday nights. By the time Drinkwater was ready to move to Sydney to enroll at the National Art School, he had already spent almost half his life in drawing classes. "Drawing is a lesson in learning how to see," he says. "It underpins everything I do."
After graduating from the NAS Drinkwater moved to Melbourne, where he met his wife-to-be, Lottie Consalvo, a painter and performance artist. Feeling the need to broaden their horizons, the two young artists left for Berlin, where they spent three years learning their trade and soaking up the atmosphere. In a small flat in Neukölln, Drinkwater painted in the bedroom while Consalvo painted in the lounge room, sometimes seven days a week.
A three-month residency in Leipzig provided the finishing touches, allowing first-hand experience of one of Europe's most dynamic contemporary art scenes. The star of the Leipzig school is Neo Rauch, whose studio was directly above that of Drinkwater and Consalvo. It was hardly a lesson in the Bohemian lifestyle, as they watched him arrive for work in a yellow Ferrari.
From Germany, Drinkwater and Consalvo visited Kenya before returning to Australia, more specifically to Drinkwater's home town of Newcastle, where they could live more cheaply than in Sydney or Melbourne. In 2014, soon after their first child, Vincenzo, was born, Drinkwater won the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship, which took the family back to Europe, this time for three months at the Cité des Arts in Paris, and three months travelling, from Ireland to the Balkans.
In Paris they found themselves in close proximity to the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, and Monet's great water lilies in the Orangerie. Having secured a show with London dealer Peta O'Brien, Drinkwater invested in good-quality materials and plunged into his work. It was the opposite approach to that of most Australian artists, who tend to stay for a time in the Cité des Arts, making small sketches and taking photos, hardly daring to produce work of any size that would need to be shipped home.
With a haven back in Newcastle, Drinkwater began to reacquaint himself with the Australian landscape, travelling to the outback and to Tasmania in search of subject matter. In this he was following in the footsteps of many earlier Australian painters (again, think of Dobell and Olsen, or even Tom Roberts), who came to maturity during years spent in Europe but found a new sense of exhilaration when they returned home.
"I think it was the space that I noticed most when we got back from overseas," Drinkwater recalls. "While it may have felt romantic to be carting coal on a trolley in Berlin, to burn in a stove, it was a thrill to come back and find all that space around and between objects. And the sound of the birds! There's a clarity to life in this country that I really appreciate."
Observations and memories
Drinkwater has obvious affinities with older artists such as Elisabeth Cummings and Ross Laurie, both landscape painters with a strong leaning towards abstraction. The idea is not to depict a scene with photographic precision but to re-invent it based on one's own observations and memories. No matter how many studies are painted in front of the motif, the bulk of the work will be done in the studio, as Drinkwater strives to recapture his impressions of a particular site.
Painter Fred Williams pointed out that in the Australian landscape there's no obvious focal point, which means an artist had to build such features into a painting. Drinkwater is quick to agree. "What I love about the Australian landscape is that it's disorderly, it's prickly and tough. In my paintings I want to capture that landscape from multiple perspectives. I want a sense of vitality and energy – that strong gesture."
Although his paintings may seem dauntingly abstract at first glance, Drinkwater recognises that in today's art world he could be viewed as old-fashioned. By his own admission, as a gestural painter he is "a bit of a dinosaur", but he loves paint too much to worry about whether he is in or out of fashion. What's important is the spirit of the picture rather than the medium.
"A lot of artists are responding to these terrible times with works full of terror and sadness," he says. "I'm doing the opposite – offering some respite."
John McDonald is senior art critic for the Sydney Morning Herald.
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