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 seem 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, includes exciting developments for the artist, such as installation works and larger scale pieces. It will be held at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre from January 31- 22 March.