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September 18, 2021

Painting the ugly beautiful: James Guppy at work

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One of James Guppy’s favourite works: An Embrace of Swallows, 2012, acrylic on linen, 120cm x 180cm.
One of James Guppy’s favourite works: An Embrace of Swallows, 2012, acrylic on linen, 120cm x 180cm.

Mandy Nolan talks to one of the north coast’s most accomplished artists about his interior voyages made manifest.

There is an dark honesty in the work of painter James Guppy, traversing a landscape that is both beautiful and unflattering, and astonishing at the same time. This is the work that would take great courage to model for, but would be deeply satisfying. I spoke with Guppy on the eve of his first local show in more than two decades

This is the first time in 25 years you have exhibited in Byron Shire where you live, so I guess I’d like to know, why here? why now? and why this particular ‘body’ of work?

While I’ve lived in Byron Shire since I emigrated from England in the early 80s I have never had a solo exhibition in the area. In the late 80s I would hang works in cafes and restaurants, and join group shows, but then in 1990 I began showing in Sydney, then Melbourne, Brisbane and the US.

There was never an opportunity – or the time – to show locally. I am not a prolific painter. It takes me well over a year or so to produce a body of work but I am a part of the local art landscape and for a long time I have wanted to let friends see what I have been up to. So to support Nadine and the Art Piece Gallery we organised an exhibition of works painted over the last five years. I feel these are some of the best works I’ve painted. They form a coherent body of work, focusing on central themes I’ve followed over the years – love, beauty, death, ageing…

The work takes the viewer to beautiful but usually unseen or dark places. How did you manage to conjure so much myth and shadow in these works?

When I was a kid my mum said to me, ‘You always draw monsters and witches. I want you to draw the Fairy Queen.’ I worked very hard at it and years later she admitted to me that my fairy queen was scarier than the witches. So, we can deduce I am at home in the dark places at least much of the time.

What are the stories that you tell? They feel to me like such narrative paintings. Where do you source these stories and how do they evolve when they hit the canvas?

All my work is narrative but the stories form themselves on the canvas as I work. I don’t start with specific tales to tell, just the scent of an idea.

The stories grow and the best ones tell open-ended tales that have various possible interpretations. When it works it’s a bit like real life – full of meaning and as opaque as a brick.

Is there an emotional journey in the creation of these works? What happens when you are painting? What do you do when you hit a wall?

There is an intense journey. My wife says I become torture to live with in the months before a show. She says I need to create a chaos of emotion and seem to suck energy out of t     hose close to me. It’s an ugly business creating beauty.

I generally work on a number of pieces at once. Each seems to help the other. So, if I get stuck I look around and one of the other works will look fresh and show me a new direction to take with it.

You have said you find our ‘placid day to day reality’ untrustworthy. Could you elaborate what you mean? Is this rooted in our deep-seated anxiety about our imminent mortality?

Of course! We spend all of our lives avoiding the truths: our imminent mortality and our relative insignificance, our struggles with the slow loss of everything we treasure and the overwhelming passions that we smother with trivial distractions. This might suggest I am a very depressed person but in fact I am fairly happy and I love the small treasures like walking to work in the morning and tickling my wife’s feet in the evening.

I just finished watching this extraordinary series called True Detective and your paintings reminded me of some of the powerful visual imagery they used in that. Why do you think we are scared of finding the exquisite in decay and metamorphosis?

I loved True Detective and thanks for connecting my work with it. I am fascinated with decay and metamorphosis. Who isn’t? Artists have always been creating memento mori – paeans to death. I don’t understand the fear. Your death is a rock you can depend on, it’s the only certainty in this fluid mutable life.

Your subjects seem naked in the true sense, anatomically, spiritually. Is this part of the painter’s process? Do you try to get underneath?

Yes, warts and all. Gotta love the warts, find the beauty in the warts.

How do you work up a show like this? Must you have lots of dinner parties and orgies. Or do you just like to watch?

I wish… but no orgies. That would take far too much energy. I just have very good friends who are prepared to put up with all sorts of indignities so that our work together might just create something worth painting. I get ideas on how to transform the models – like a bonnet made of twigs or a corset of cow ribs and my wife, Trude, fabricates them.

In essence, the images evolve out of sessions with all of us working together and then I look at the photos and they look terrible – but later I see possibilities.

What are your challenges as a painter?

Trying to get better or at least not go backwards.

Finding the space to paint and still live in the real world. Things need attention – people get sick, lives can crumble without attention and I am not immune. While life’s dramas may feed a sort of inner dialogue that will come out in paint eventually, they also deplete me and leave me confused.

What do you believe are your strengths?

My wife says I develop this thick skin or shield that enables me to bury myself in the studio and shut everything else out. I would say that I do have to lock the door and ensure my darling doesn’t burst in with some manic presentation about world events. Then I am shattered and slammed back into the ‘real’ world.

What should people expect for this show?

Hmmm. Hopefully they’ll see some good painting. Excuse my hubris. I think Embrace of Swallows is one of the best paintings I’ve done. It is rare that I look at my work and feel okay.

I guess for me, it’s all about the paint and the way the images intrude into your world – infecting it. Good art is a virus that affects the way we see the world for evermore.

And I do suspect the lovely long table at the dinner in the gallery Nadine is organising will be a great noisy feast. Two or three of the models will be there – one is opening the exhibition – and quite a few friends who have watched the works evolve over the years.

The extraordinary work of James Guppy is on show at Art Piece Gallery in Mullumbimby on Thursday with a public opening from 6pm. Those interested in a sit-down feast with the artist at 7.30pm should contact the gallery on 6684 3446.

Those interested in Guppy’s work are invited to attend a public talk put on by CASE and BSA on Tuesday July 15 at 6pm at the Court House Hotel in Mullumbimby


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