James Clayden is one of the most significant Australian artists of his generation. He is very much a painter’s painter, recognised as much for his mastery of the medium as for his artistic integrity. When we contemplate his work we are as much aware of the abstracted forms as we are of the layers it has been necessary to set down in order to arrive at them.
This body of work – which has been made on the hard surfaces of wooden panel or the slippery surface of glass – is all about painting. It is also about the process of looking. When we consider the surfaces, we find that they are almost sculptural in their luscious thickness and density. Each work suggests to us the physicality of the process, and we can get a sense of the solitary artist, alone in the studio, quietly working towards the finished state; eliminating that which was unnecessary or building up areas to allow them more authority. Each painting becomes a unique object which reveals its subject matter as well as the time it has taken to bring it in to being. It is as if the artist is seeking to fix the fleeting experience before it disappears.
The subject matter in the exhibition comes from Clayden’s immediate environment and surroundings: reclining figures; head studies; park views; landscapes; arrangements of flowers, etc. which he transforms. He condenses these subjects into new arrangements of rich colour and incising line, often seeming to carve the imagery into the paintwork with his brushes. Faces, bodies, and landscapes are concentrated into dashes, swipes, dabs, curlicues and zigzags of thick, interweaving paint. The paint is its own reality, as central to the artist’s process as the defining of the imagery. But, rather than becoming more descriptive, the forms become infinitely more mysterious as they are embedded in the medium. ‘Capturing’ the subject may also be to ‘let it go’.
The whole history of each painting is enclosed within its depths. Every step of the artist’s process, and every aesthetic decision he has made, is locked beneath the textured picture-planes. The viewer is aware of the varying paces he has adopted; the rapidity of some hurried strokes against the slow enunciation of others; the connecting lines; the sweeps; the dabs; the scrapes etc.
Any exhibition by Clayden is an aesthetically nourishing experience. He is amongst our very best and assured painters.