‘Chaotic Extravagance’ – Writer Paul Harper on James Green Artist

21 Mar 2023   |  Journal

I visit James Green on a cold grey windy day. His studio is high up on Bear Hill, Rodborough, with a large north- facing window. Even in the dim light of a January afternoon there are fine views over towards Selsey Common. Inside, the detritus of James’s working methods are arranged with a kind of chaotic extravagance: tools, brushes, palette knives, spray cans, marker pens; canvases are stapled to the walls, lie scattered across the floor, hang in casual folds over racks, pile up in the corners of the room – paint smudged, dripping or still flowing. An old sofa is heaped with books, and yet more canvas. Paint is encrusted on the furniture, walls and floor, it runs over the edges of works in progress. A small heater whirrs vainly away – it’s not much warmer inside than out. In the midst of all this is James – open, curious, restlessly energetic. As he moves about the space, talking enthusiastically, pulling out works that he wants me to see, the dis-order resolves – not into order exactly, but it begins to make sense. The work and the studio seem continuous with each other.

Having grown up in the Stroud Valleys, James has a formal art education from Cardiff School of Art, where he arrived with an already established style of observational, figurative painting that was precise and technically accomplished. Whilst he is quite dismissive of his time at Cardiff on the formal educational side of things – he insists that he is self-taught – it was at art school that he began to let go of his precocious competence and to work in a more instinctive, expressive way, and to evolve an original aesthetic.

He paints onto raw, unstretched canvas, going to work instinctively, without preamble or pause for thought. There is something workman like in his description of his method – he picks up his tools and begins to make marks quickly and intuitively. When he is done with a picture, he takes it down and moves on to another. If his earlier work had a kind of meticulous, painterly precision, his current paintings have a loose, vivid unpredictability. The first impression is of gestural vitality and rich painterly effect – bright colours emerge out of murky smudges, sharp definition blurs into misty formlessness. There are broad sweeping lines and fine, tangled, scribbly detail. There are indistinct colour washes, paint drips, flows or clumps into crusty accretions. Amidst this abstract maelstrom of clarity and vaguery there are hints of crude calligraphy, figuration and human faces – ambiguous, half-formed, cartoony, partially erased. Sometimes there is a suggestion of formal structure, but wherever it appears it is quickly subverted. Nevertheless, the paintings have a satisfying sense of composition. Just as James works across the whole canvas, so the eye follows the arc of his mark making, refusing to settle in one place. There is a compelling physicality to these objects.

A piece is finished when James feels that he has reached an end point. Then the canvas is framed, floating over the mount, with the ripped and unfinished edges showing. This presents the work effectively and maintains some authentic trace of the studio and the process – but do they seem ever so slightly contained, even tamed to some degree? Certainly, I felt privileged to see them in their naked form, in the setting of their making.

For all their spontaneity James’s paintings carry a clear sense of focus and intention. There is a kind of deliberate unlearning going on in the work. He describes a narrative of having to escape what he saw as the limitations of his natural aptitude for painting realistic images and of trying to distance himself from his art school education – with its attitude of hierarchy and underpinning of dense theory. Nevertheless, he has been immersed in art history and, whilst it is easy enough to get caught up in the energy of his paintings, it is difficult not to read them also in those terms. In particular, there are unmistakable references to the blurry dynamism of Bacon and the sketchy, graffiti-like, calligraphic visual language of Basquiat – although James’s paintings also carry a kind of joie de vie that is not present in those artist’s work. There isn’t a sense of demons being exercised, but rather of excited energy, of a force that must find an outlet. There is also something humorous in the work. The paintings may use a darkly urban idiom, a hint of violent struggle and a sense of social critique, but amidst the bleached out desolation of the mid-winter Cotswolds I’m more caught up in their vibrancy – they seem almost cheerful.

Another mark of his education is his habit of drawing, a natural inclination that is embedded as a discipline through his art school training. James likes to sit in public spaces, like the railway station, and to sketch people rapidly as they walk past.

He talks about wanting to capture an ‘everyman’, a nameless man in the crowd. These sketches have a formative role in the paintings, with obscured, anonymous faces being a recurring, central element in the image.

Since leaving art school in 2010, James had a string of  various jobs, always maintaining a thread of art practice. After a period of living and working in Australia he returned to the UK and committed himself to making art full time. He established a studio in London and built a profile as an artist before coming back to his roots in Nailsworth. Already at home here, he is well connected with the artist networks that thrive around Stroud & beyond. It’s heartening to hear that he is enjoying acclaim and ballooning success with his art. He has a number of upcoming exhibitions planned, including one in Paris, which is of works made collaboratively with French artist Monsieur Jamin, and others are seeking him out for interesting collaborations.

In the meantime James can be found every day in his studio, focused, surrounded by the organised chaos of his practice, making art.


Painting by James Green Artist