James Cousins: The structure of existence - Art Collector

Issue 69, July - September 2014

James Cousins is a painter fascinated by structure: the structure of a good painting and the structure of truths. Louise Martin-Chew takes a look at the work of the New Zealand artist ahead of an exhibition of his new work in Brisbane.
James Cousins, Untitled, 2014, detail, oil and acrylic on canvas, 55 x 50cm. Courtesy: the artist and Ryan Renshaw Gallery, Brisbane

For conceptual painter James Cousins, spending five years in London in the 1990s, after graduating from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, was formative. “At that time the Frieze show had begun and Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and the other young British artists were bursting onto the scene. Charles Saatchi had an experimental space where I saw major artists from the United States. And there was a lot of conceptually-based sculpture, which reminded me that I needed to think carefully about a conceptual approach to painting.” His early training had, “rigor, and we learnt how to look at things”. The influence of this structured and formal study is now visible in the highly crafted forms that Cousins’s mature paintings have taken.

After returning to New Zealand, Cousins continued his study, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, where he now teaches. Working toward his third solo exhibition for Brisbane’s Ryan Renshaw Gallery, he continues his investigations into postmodern painting, tracing the trajectory from a realist starting point into an image that reads as an abstracted and fragmented yet highly unified picture.

When Cousins spoke to
Art Collector, he had just returned from five weeks of research, viewing exhibitions at the Biennale of Sydney, then London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. He saw Matisse cutouts in London and an immersive exhibition by Sigmar Polke, Chris Wool and others. In these experiences, he was examining “the making, the decision-making processes of these artists. It is the great opportunity in spending time with the works of art – one that you can’t get from a book.”

His own approach to picture making reflects this interest in structure. “I am interested in paint and painting in a way that is cognisant of its history. Within my practice I introduce a series of limitations that allow for the examination of postmodern ideas about painting, in an open and pluralistic sense.” His body of work is a continuum, and the new works for Australia extend from those seen at Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland in 2013.

“These works are continuing in their extension of certain processes and approaches. I use a mechanical process and spray guns, so that the gesture of the hand is not evident in the work. Increasingly it is the mechanical gesture that I use to play off against the contrast of the gesture created by the hand.”

Many of the recent works begin with a figurative image, taken from a photograph, from which Cousins paints a flower or organic form. These images are often drawn from pictorial reference books, themselves second hand and outdated. Cousins is interested in pursuing the notion of veracity and truth in historical references from the relatively recent past that have been superseded by new truths, currently seen as just as immutable.

Over this Cousins creates multiple layers with vinyl stencils. These are produced by a computer-driven vinyl cutting machine, laid over the painted surface and then over-painted, before the remaining stencil is peeled away. There is as much unmaking as making in these works, and the layers are visible when the canvases are viewed closely from the side. In this way the process is rendered transparent to the viewer. Cousins explains: “I like to allow the history of the work to inform its viewing nuances.”

“I am interested in making work that is difficult to pin down visually. I like to extend the idea of work that is constantly changing. It is my ambition that every time you see the painting, you see something you haven’t before.” As such, these are aesthetic exercises with a compulsive viewing pleasure attached. In
Untitled, a new 2014 work, the underlying organic shapes float with a presence that contrasts, complements and competes with the geometry that lies above.

The unique development for the Ryan Renshaw exhibition includes works on a larger scale, and the variation in size alters the way we might approach them. At the time of writing, Cousins had 12 works in progress in his studio, from which he will select seven or eight completed paintings to journey to Australia. “I work in batches, and at a very fundamental level the decisions made in each work inform each other.” Equally, he plans to leave at least a couple of works in the studio, not quite finished. “I don’t like to be left with nothing – it can be hard to start the conversation again.”

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