James De Villiers is a South African artist based in Johannesburg whose work is concerned with change, decay, destruction, and the passage of time. De Villiers' main themes are derived from a study of military, art and social history, an interest in archaeology, science, ecology and music.
StateoftheART was thrilled to interview the artist for a deeper dive into his new artworks, now on show at the Gallery in Cape Town. This series of paintings exemplifies James' abstract painting style and we were intrigued to hear more about what went into each work, particularly the artist's pursuit of expressing invisible phenomena in a visual way on the canvas.
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James de Villiers' studio, with two artworks in progress: 'Liminal Space Map' and 'Strata'
Hi James, please bring us up to speed on what is happening in your life?
Over the past few years my main activities have been developing ideas for painting, drawing and screenprinting through a great deal of experimentation and research into many disparate but ultimately interlinked subjects, such as musical structures, nuclear and quantum physics, mapping, ecology and disruptive occurrences such as war and natural disaster.
And what are you working on at the moment?
I am currently working on a range of paintings influenced by both the Large Hadron Collider and particle trails as well as Laniakea, the home of the Milky Way. These represent the smallest and largest manifestations of matter and energy.
What does an average day look like for you?
An average day at the studio starts with a two hour walk and run after breakfast. These walks provide a chance to do active meditation and sort out various things in my head and to hopefully achieve clarity. A great way of experiencing nature in all weather conditions and observing seasonal changes and also just good for mental and physical wellbeing in general.
After the morning's exercise I read emails, do research into whatever I'm busy with at the time and engage in work such as canvas stretching, priming, screen-printing, archiving and photographing artworks or household maintenance. After lunch I might paint for a while, but I find the best time for painting is in the evenings when I'm at my most creative. I worked evening shifts at newspapers as a graphic artist for a great deal of my working life so I got into that working habit. Usually go to sleep by 1 am and up between 7 and 8am.
James de Villiers with his painting 'Liminal Space Map'
What does your creative process involve when creating your abstract paintings?
There are several aspects to my art which are drawn from many years of art-making and experience. These influence my vocabulary or grammar I use in art-making; it is a visual language comprised of certain subjects and symbols which I have accumulated over time. The challenge is to assemble these into a visual manifestation which somehow can induce a sense of wonder, a reaction, an intensity of focus or meditative process in the viewer. These symbols can be viewed as a shorthand for processes of motion and patterns.
Over the last ten years or so I have moved from realism to abstraction. I do still paint realistically on odd occasions, particularly skies, as they are abstract by their very nature and embody a great deal of what my art is about. The sky paintings fall under an ongoing project I call The Architecture of Air.
There is the idea of order and disorder or chaos and the role these factors play in whatever happens on a visible or invisible level or on the micro- and macro- levels. I am particularly interested in the processes behind the never-ending cycles of the creation of matter and subsequent decay and renewal.
There is the everyday visible and experienced aspect of nature. This is informed by what I see around me in the everyday world, such as meditating and working in the garden or going on my daily walks and simply observing the environment. The natural progression towards entropy juxtaposed with attempts to balance delicate systems and their inevitable decay.
When I was about 3 or 4 years old I started having several profound peak experiences, almost mystical events while I was playing in the garden, an intense feeling of unity with nature and a feeling of oneness which to this day remain vivid and memorable turning points in my life.
"The Garden exemplifies the massive, but often unrecognised dependence of the human creative activity upon the co-operation of the natural world … embodying a unity between human beings and the natural world, an intimate co-dependence."- David E Cooper, philosopher.
'Liminal Space Map', 'Octant VII' and 'That Other World' by James de Villiers on show at StateoftheART Gallery in Cape Town.
Can you tell us a bit more about these 3 paintings: ‘That Other World’, ‘Liminal Space Map’, and ‘Octant VII’. How did they develop and what was your focus when creating them?
That Other World and Liminal Space Map are based on the following ideas:
There is the often unseen scientific aspect, the abstract aspects modelled by mathematics, chemistry and physics, the making sense of, and the ordering of phenomena taking place on the visible and invisible levels. The energies and the spirit behind the visible phenomena.
I have made use of symbols and techniques to portray these unseen aspects. The symbols in my case can range from a speck of dust, random text, broken branches, fallen flowers and leaves and geometric solids to a grid line or a random brushstroke.
That Other World is about the space between visible and the invisible, the split seconds of change, chaos and rearrangement of matter. It is about the disruption of the grid.
There is the paradoxical difficulty of producing something that is completely random and chaotic. Can randomness produce an eventual pattern? Is there such a thing as chaos? It appears that regular patterning is almost a default when rendering a similar object repeatedly such as fallen leaves and natural forest or garden debris and the tracks left by sub-atomic particles. The trick for me is that I have to consciously subvert that tendency by breaking the rhythmic aspect of mark-making. There are musical equivalents at work in my artmaking here; harmony and disharmony, point and counterpoint. The internal rhythms, the breaking down of rhythms, waves and vibrations. Some of my paintings are done under the influence of music, some in complete silence.
One of my muses is the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. This is a circular particle accelerator divided into 8 sections called octants which are part of the guiding mechanisms for the high-speed particle beam. Octant VII contains the cleaning section which is important to protect the accelerator against unavoidable regular and irregular beam loss which would lead to damage to the accelerator.
This was a catalyst for my painting, imagining the ferocious speeds and the chaos of the cleansing process of particles and the flood of data accompanying the process. It's kind of a stream of consciousness painting process I undertake, making visible the invisible, a type of abstract expressionism based on a constantly undermined grid structure
Eventually there is a synthesis or an essence of many ideas in an artwork. When I produce a painting such as those exhibited they are a product of all that is stored in my subconscious and are mostly executed very energetically when starting. The process then assumes a meditative exercise as I attend to the actual detail of the work which can vary a great deal in length of time taken as I often layer paint several times. This is particularly pertinent to Liminal Space Map, my latest painting which is also influenced by viewing drone visuals from the current war between Russia and Ukraine. I often use various interpretations of wartime maps and visuals in my imagery.
You’ve mentioned in the past your interests include Music and Science. Is there anything else that influences your art making?
I am interested in the way grids are utilised and how they function. Ranging from ordering columns of values to map making, engineering and nuclear physics, the grid is often a visible or invisible structure underpinning a sense of order, a shape, a plane or a process. A way to plot trajectories and movements. Grids are used as a basis to illustrate the most profound abstract concepts in mathematics and physics.
Among the many artists who have interested me, my current favourites are Pierre Soulange, Fabienne Verdier and Afshin Naghouni.
Also underpinning my art is the influence of Joseph Campbell and his writings and lectures on mythology. From this I found inspiration from ancient Eastern cosmology and scientific thought represented by mythic imagery, symbolism and ritual. I am also a believer in the power of the subconscious to catalyse imagery and insights.
Detail of 'That Other World' by James de Villiers.
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