For Sydney-born artist James King, 2003 was a watershed year. He won the Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize, organised by the South Australian Museum. “It was the year that changed everything, and I started to believe that painting was my true calling,” he tells.
James’ figurative oil paintings and works on paper, re-contextualise found photographs from the 20th century. “For many years I’ve been building up an archive of vernacular photography with an emphasis on mid 20th-century images,” he explains. “Some images speak louder than others and they’re the ones I do a small study in watercolour, gouache or ink. If it has legs, I’ll work it up into a painting.”
His latest work focuses on people in isolation, or tightly packed groupings, reflecting the radical shifts in society – particularly in 2020. Assembly depicts blank faces staring up from within a crowded space – a nod to social distancing. The Truthtellers, appears as a school class photo yet cynicism is rampant. The group of young female students hold posters with slogans that address current global issues including “Stop global warming”, “Denial is not policy”, and “Refugees welcome”.
James’ work has often been described as quirky but has lately taken on more dark and humorous connotations. His subjects range from bleak architectural and cloud-filled landscapes, to portraits of people and objects painted on old timber panels, large canvases and hardcover books, whose titles often provoke the direction of the work. While he uses oil on canvas or board, he has recently taken to watercolour, gouache and ink for his preliminary studies. “There’s a level of alchemy and mystery they offer that are so fundamentally different from oils.”
While the undercurrent of unease uniting James’ work may appear to be a product of contemporary life, it is often the found objects and photographs from mid 20th century that inform his subjects. “They have an immediacy and veracity that I have difficulty finding in today’s media,” he says. Taking us back through time, James’ playful reconfiguration of perspective and context brings the past flooding into the present.