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James Connelly / « back

‘The Dream Catcher’, James Connelly

James Connelly is a painter, also working in participatory art projects and recently experimenting with NFT’s. He has a studio at ASC Streatham Hill, received a Foundation in Painting from Doncaster College, a BA from DeMontfort Leicester and an MA in Fine Art from the RCA. He has been pursuing his practice for over 20 years. If you want to showcase his work get in touch! | @jimmyjconnelly

Your figurative painting and scenes stem primarily from the imagination. What is the starting point for this? Do you get into a head space in the studio? Do they come from dreams?

No, it just comes from painting. Sometimes I’ve got a rough idea of what I’m doing beforehand, otherwise I just paint. The paintings I did from source materials years ago look “better” and more people like them but the process is not as interesting. You lose the element of surprise and the feeling of navigating and exploring internal worlds whilst the painting unfolds as you keep adding to it or wiping paint away. You lose the whole problem solving dimension.

Also when the work is pre-planned you forfeit the huge array of possibilities of paint.

I think when you’re an artist, do it the way you want to do it or get another job. Because if you do what other people prefer, that’s what you do in a job. So if I’m being an artist, I might as well do it how I enjoy doing it. 

You recently took on a new space to start larger paintings in, how have you found making larger scale works, is any part of the process different for you?

I love working on big paintings the most because they are so physical and  more rewarding when finished, but I don’t make them so much out of respect for the cost of materials. This means I do a lot of the working out and problem solving on the small canvases first which have become my comfort zone.

When I come up with a language or imagery on a small scale that I’m really interested in exploring, I then ‘anoint’ it by using it for a series of large paintings.

I’m in the process of transitioning into one of those painters who do a huge painting nearly every day. The painting part is easy but it’s taking me a while to figure out how to manage the cost of materials for big paintings. I love homemade stretchers because then the artist has crafted the entire object.

Could you talk a bit about your paint brushes – they’ve become characters that feature on your Instagram and you post videos of their commentary.

It just came to me, I tried it one day and I liked it. The idea is, I’ve been doing this [painting] for 20 years; the paint brushes have lost patience, they’re taking over and revolting. They’re frustrated with my progress and they also feel like they’ve not got the recognition they deserve in art history. I’m annoyed, they’re taking over and bossing me around …

How have your paintings changed since the paintbrushes have begun to take over? 

That one [link to brushes painting the mentioned work] is done by the brushes. The brushes – some of them have got personality traits that I don’t have. I’ve seen some people progress really fast, and they’ve got certain personality traits that I don’t have so I’ve put them in the brushes.

I like to try and give people another way in if they don’t automatically have a way into what I’m doing – so the paintbrushes are another way in.

I heard Phyllida Barlow [in the Talk Art podcast] say that: “I think artists who work in this exploration where they’re not sure where the ending is or the finish is, are also quite vulnerable actually because I think these works are kind of extensions of their own bodies and their own mental apparatus. And for me they don’t have an idea, they’re idealess, so they can seem stupid and dumb and I think critically they then become very difficult to write about”. She said “maybe there is an act of communication that is verbal that isn’t the work, but can give some insight into what the sensual experience of making is and that it isn’t a verbal experience.” 

The talking paintbrush characters have started explaining this kind of thing in their videos.

Faces feature a lot in your work as well as on the paintbrushes, are there certain scenes, settings, figures you feel most drawn to or find yourself coming back to?

Yes, I sketch faces all of the time. I’d like to expand more to the rest of the body but I find faces more familiar. I know my way around faces; I see faces everywhere: When I look at a car, the headlights look like eyes and the grill and bumper look like nose and mouth, when I look at a toilet sometimes the basin looks like a mouth and 2 toilet rolls become eyes, when I see a house the top windows look like eyes and the front door a mouth. I literally see faces in everything I look at. The most beautiful ones are in the clouds. So faces just tend to appear really quickly when I start putting paint down.

Do the characters in your paintings exist in the same world, in conversation with each other or are they all separate?

I think it’s another world, sometimes they can be in the same one, sometimes they are in their own worlds which are sub worlds of the universe they all belong to. But it’s a world that’s in us. I don’t know, even the world we’re in is different for every person – so the paintings all have their own world but as objects they also exist in the ‘real world’. I thought the brushes as ‘real world’ objects help usher people into the fantasy world of the paintings.

We’re all in this world together, but one day we’re all gonna leave the world and we’ve got different ideas; none of us agree what’s in the next world. So when I start painting from the imagination, the gap between my world and your world widens. Because it’s also fed by thoughts of what the next world might be. 

What’s your biggest influence on your practice?

I’m interested in the uncanny – the unhomely, something that looks vaguely familiar but there’s something seriously wrong in the background. It’s usually something a bit creepy and I’d rather that than nothing unexpected at all. For me, I want the punctum [the term coined by Roland Barthes for the incidental but poignant detail in a photograph] the unexpected twist is often the  uncanny, if I get that in the painting then I’m happy.

Can you talk more about the bridging that takes place in the scenes in your work. There is often some component that bridges the characters together. Sometimes it’s body parts, faces or facets that look like instruments which join the characters. 

I think I’m interested in this communal experience but also being isolated. I’ve been thinking of this period now where we’ve been communicating but completely separate with these video calls. There’s so little of the normal body language, everyone’s trying really hard to be connected. They’re trying to do this thing together, but all separate. So many different layers of separation and people trying to make sense of this software they have to use and doing all of this to achieve a basic level of hello – how are you – what did you do today. We’re trying to channel these emotions down a broadband cable.

Do you have a mantra?

“Don’t make the easy job look hard. Make the hard job look easy.” Is a saying my uncle taught me 30 years ago. I got a bit fed up over the pandemic and started reading self help books and learned about affirmations. It’s embarrassing but it really helped my grumpy moods. I’ve got a long  list of affirmations that I try to say every day that last over 10 minutes. They basically say  I am going to be a successful artist so that I can inspire and support my children and help my family and friends.

Tell us about a piece you are currently working on.

I’m getting interested in this weird image that’s arising in my paintings of these weird communal instruments that people play together in unison. They are all sort of joined together but isolated at the same time.

Is there any advice you were given that you would like to share?

Invest at least an hour a day to look after your health. mental, spiritual, physical. Your art is the golden egg but you are the goose. Don’t kill the goose.

What sources do you turn to for inspiration when you are creatively stuck?

Sketching as a diversion and a way of getting input, also having a set period of time to paint. If you keep painting you can get yourself out of a hole by brute force if nothing else.

Do you like mistakes?

Define mistakes. I like accidents, when you try to paint one thing and something else appears that’s actually better than the original idea. I think mistakes are the best and worst things in life.