Merging memory and interior reflection with visual and aural references in the work of Painter James Owens

Having spent his childhood in north Yorkshire and the Cotswolds, painter James Owens moved to London at 18 years old to study at Camberwell College of Arts. Since completing his studies, James has remained a part of south-east London’s rich creative scene, finding opportunities for creative exchange and collaboration, as well as keeping up with local live music. Last year, James was shortlisted for the Evening Standard Emerging Artist Award.
 His practice is one that combines internal processes of memory, contemplation and imagination with a vast array of external visual references, from films such as Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas, to images from children’s storybooks. James also draws on art forms beyond the visual, incorporating elements of sound and music when it comes to conceptualising and titling his work, with reference to John Berger’s emphasis on the sensory contexts in which a picture is viewed as integral to our experience of the work as a whole. 
 These allusions and references, both personal and observed, are merged, reworked and reconstituted on James’s canvas to project an uncanny unfamiliarity onto familiar scenes. A figure on a bike is beset by clusters of sinister-looking hothouse flowers which appear to sway on their stems with sentient purpose; swarms of leeches breach the boundaries of domestic spaces; figures overlap and become tangled up with their backdrops; trees turn blue, skies turn red and grass turns orange. All this culminates in pictures that draw the viewer into a way of seeing akin to a half-remembered dream, or a film watched on a warped VHS, colours and images bleeding into one another.
 James speaks to us here about his processes of sketching, making and naming his works, his relationship with the rural environment of his childhood, and the deeply felt affiliations between his painting practice and other art forms – both visual and non-visual.

AMM: Hi James! To start off, could you tell us a bit about your background, what first led you to pursue art, and whether there was a defining moment when you started thinking of yourself as an artist?

JO: I am originally from north Yorkshire. My mum is from a fishing village and my dad the moors. We moved down to the Cotswolds when I was very young and I spent my childhood there. I then moved down to London when I was 18 and have been here ever since, finishing university.

Art came into my life when I was young. I was obsessed with Star Wars and I would draw hundreds of stick men with lightsabers. My grandmother gave me this huge box of art materials as she was really into arts and crafts – she would knit these happy little spiders to sell at the village craft fair. The box had loads of watercolours, colouring pencils and paper. I remember feeling excited about receiving it and took this attitude for making into art classes at school, which the head teacher soon spotted and encouraged me to pursue.

I have never thought of myself as an artist, I don’t know why but I see that title as something much bigger than me. Maybe one day I will become an artist but for now I like to see myself as a painter. But when you tell someone that, they ask what your rates are and if you could paint their downstairs bathroom or something…

AMM: Was there a particular person or mentor figure, either during your early experiments with art or during your studies at Camberwell College of Arts, who had a formative impact on you as an artist?

JO: The people who had the biggest impact on me were my peers; I have two close friends who were painting before I was and got me into it. We would paint together in our house-share, discuss painting and critique each others work. I feel as though I have come far with their support.

AMM: How would you describe the style of your work now, and how has this style developed over time?

JO: I’ve always had this ongoing battle with myself about my ‘style’. The quality of my work I feel is always improving but I used to worry that I needed to churn out the same style of painting over and over again for it to be valid. But I’ve happily come to terms with the fact that I can paint in a few different styles while the way I see will always tie it together.

AMM: What are your preferred mediums and materials to work with?

JO: I use all sorts – for drawings it could be just graphite or coloured pencils but also brush pens or felt tips. With painting I do a lot of gouache or watercolour on paper. Then on canvas mainly oil, but a lot of the thinner layers underneath can be watered down acrylic, gouache or watercolour. Every painting is different; I don’t really have a routine when I make.

AMM: The scenes and figures in your paintings often seem to invite narrative interpretation. I notice that you take a lot of inspiration from film and television with references to Mad Men, Psycho and The Lighthouse; you even have a painted rendition of a still from the film Paris, Texas, with the implication that your works can be read as stilled moments. Do you consider each of your paintings as a self- contained narrative or do you have narratives that extend across a number of different works?

JO: I would say both really. Some paintings are completely self-contained, but in other cases, objects or symbols I use leak out into other works. For example the painting titled ‘There’s Leeches in the House’ can be seen as a reference to depression. I grew up in a small village called Northleach and the river Leach ran through the village. I was told at school that the reason why the river is named the river Leach is because a long time ago it was home to a vast population of leeches. I’m not sure if that’s completely true but I’ve always loved the mystery of that story and I think some things need to remain a mystery. In the painting, outside the window the river has flooded and leeches have gotten into the house and are making their way towards the figure sat at the table. The word leech gives me this feeling of something attaching itself onto something else. This parallels with a depressive state of mind – similar to what a leech does, sucking the blood out of you. The leeches from this painting then also roam around in my other works, interfering with other narratives.

AMM: In your mind, what can painting do that a filmic narrative cannot?

JO: It’s hard to compare the two – I think they are very different. Painting can be anything you want it to be, it stills you in a moment that can last as long as you want it to. With film it’s a journey through the narrative; you’re given sound and movement and your emotions change throughout. Painting is a reflection of a specific moment and of yourself, as you are able to incorporate your own thoughts into the paint. It gives you time to think.

AMM: The titles of your works also uphold this capacity of a painting to deliver to the viewer all the complexities of a moment, mood or relationship within a single frame – titles that function like quotations or that offer intriguing descriptions of the represented scene. How do you go about titling your images? Does the title naturally emerge from the image or do you sometimes use a title or phrase as a starting point for creating a work?

JO: The process of the title always happens after the work is finished. Sometimes I sit and look at the work for up to an hour with a drink – maybe it reminds me of a song and I will then play the song and see how the image can change with a soundtrack added to it. This was an observation John Berger made when playing different types of music to accompany a work by Caravaggio. Or I might try to view the painting as if I’ve never seen it before; I can sometimes do this strange thing where I leave the room, block the image of the painting out of my mind, then come back in with my back facing the painting, suddenly turn around and see what catches my eye first. But a lot of my titles do seem to be quotes, as if I’m trying to annotate the picture. Maybe this tendency stems from being really into Garfield and Peanuts comics when growing up.

I have never started with a title or phrase but I am for the first time about to start a painting with a lyric from a Thom Yorke song, ‘Suspirium’: “All is well as long as we keep spinning”.

AMM: How do you collect visual references? Do you now watch films and go about your daily life with an almost ‘painterly’ eye in search of images, or do certain images naturally suggest themselves to you in the moment? I suppose I am really asking what qualities make a moment or image stand out to you, so that you feel compelled to incorporate it into your painting?

JO: Most of my visual references come from memories, heritage or places I have been. My grandfather was a Yorkshire fisherman and a member of the RNLI. But since I moved down to the Cotswolds when I was young, I also have a close connection to the countryside and nature. I think I’m drawn to things that I can project my own experiences onto. So as for collecting the references, I’m finding, for example, images, parts of films, animation and moments in children’s books that can trigger a feeling or a memory. I’ve always loved the re-use of other artistic endeavours. It could be anything – I might recognise the relationship between two characters in a film and be reminded of my own relationship with someone else. But ultimately, images do suggest themselves naturally through an amalgamation of ideas, so a lot of my paintings are made completely from my imagination. I guess the references are a place for my memories and thoughts to inhabit while I create a new environment for them to live on the canvas.

AMM: Beyond these references, what else inspires and influences your work? Do you ever look beyond the visual for inspiration – literature or music for example?

JO: Music is equally as important to me as my visual influences. As I mentioned before, my grandfather was a fisherman and he was a part the Staithes Fisherman’s Choir. The BBC made a short film in 1997 with the choir singing by the sea overlooking the fishing village (the video can be found on Youtube). They sing a bunch of sea shanties and folk songs. Certain records have also changed my outlook on making paintings, for example the first time I heard ‘Remain in Light’ by Talking Heads. Also the likes of Jake Thackray, Donald Byrd and Nina Simone. I think Nina’s song ‘Sinnerman’ helped me indulge in some of the darker tones and relate more so to my fears that I include in my work. It’s a fierce song and I can rarely listen to it now; I have to be in a certain mood to experience it properly.

AMM: Do you make a lot of sketches or drawings before starting on a painting?

JO: I’m always drawing – in fact I probably draw more than I paint. I sometimes see drawing as practice before the real performance on canvas. But the paintings rarely end up looking anything like the drawings I work from.

AMM: What role does colour play in your work? Do you tend to use pigment as a way of reflecting the content or theme of the painting, or to offset it?

JO: I go through phases with my colour choices – it’s never always the same. One month I will maybe use the same three or four colours which you can notice throughout the works made during that time, but there will always be colours that I have mixed by chance which are only found in one or two paintings. Most of my paintings are set at nighttime. I find the world more interesting at night. The colours are toned down and some illuminate. I try to replicate that with the colours I use.

AMM: What is your studio setup like and what conditions are essential for you to be able to work well?

JO: I work in a spare room in the house I live in at the moment. I have to be on my own – I can’t stand people watching me work for some reason. I feel the eyes watching and it puts this strange pressure on me. I remember when I was young my football team got to a cup final and we played in front of a bigger crowd than usual. When the game finally came I played the worst football I had ever played in my life and we lost 8-0. So I guess I have similar relationship with painting and audience. I also need music – I listen to a lot of NTS radio. Some obscure playlist will always get me in a good rhythm to paint.

AMM: The creative scene in south-east London is so rich and diverse – how do you find living in the midst of it? Do you find a lot of opportunity for creative exchange and collective projects?

JO: I’ve always loved south-east since I started at Camberwell College. I’ve met a lot of different people from all sorts of creative backgrounds and creative exchanges happen often. I mainly go to see live music. The music scene in SE is, in my mind, way more predominant.

AMM: How do you spend your time when you’re not making art?

JO: To be honest, I’m always thinking about art. If I’m not making it I will be at a show or going for walks around south-east. I’ve started to make music this last year and I dabble a bit in animation. But it’s yet to be put out there. I guess there is never a time when I’m not making or thinking about art.

AMM: We’ve got to ask because it seems to be at the forefront of any discussion at the moment – how is the current global health crisis affecting your practice and how are you responding to it?

JO: When the lockdown began I had a massive panic, as I’m sure lots of people did. But it’s made me realise that at this moment in time I’m happy just being a painter, making paintings and doing what I’ve got to do to survive. I always used to stress about what my next steps would be to get closer to my goals but then I realised that I wasn’t putting the work first. So now I’m spending time working on my paintings and if anything comes of it then it will feel way more organic.

AMM: Looking further ahead – what are your main hopes and aspirations for your art?

JO: I used to have a tonne, but I think now with everything that’s happened in the past few months, my main aspiration is just to carry on being a painter while having the time and finances to support myself in doing so.

Find out more about the artist: www.james-owens.co.uk

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.