Nick Hackworth

James Drinkwater - Expansive intimacy in Somewhere Between The Sea and The Table

Essays & Reviews Vigo Gallery

An essay commissioned on Australian painter James Drinkwater's first UK solo show.


Expansive intimacy in Somewhere Between The Sea and The Table: On the paintings of James Drinkwater

Obliquely describing the world that he and the paintings in this exhibition, Somewhere Between The Sea and The Table, inhabit, James Drinkwater recounts a reverie he had on a recent, hot, summer's night. He was at home in the seaside town of Newcastle, two hours north of Sydney, in bed, with his young children bundled up and asleep next to him. Enveloped by the comforting heat Drinkwater remembers drowsily imagining himself becoming the warm wind blowing in off the ocean, across the white capped waves that hide beneath them vast aquatic realms, teaming with life, through the working harbour with its ships and its daily memory of labour, and into his house and into the bedroom, caressing him and his family. Drinkwater has translated his vision into a poem, which opens...:

"Tuck the bundles in clean scratchy sheets
Seagrass hair like wool
sewn into the wind of a working harbour
wind that kissed the white caps
Neon on a black and green sea
Invisible stitches - your humble labour
flood my dream
Morse code in the sockets of clouds"

Elsewhere in the poem, just as in his rich, colourful and musical, semi-wild, semi-abstract paintings, forms, worlds and scales melt and flow into each other, ‘...the piano is a bath and the bath is an ocean' and '...the ships horns are a brass band'. There is a sense that everything is at once itself but has the potential to be anything else too, being profoundly connected in the underlying unity of existence.

With its disembodied, mobile narrator with a God's eye view of their world, its anchoring in the theatre of domesticity, its lyrical fluidity and allusiveness, Drinkwater's dream recalls the opening of Thomas Dylan’s radio drama Under Milk Wood in which an omniscient narrator floats above and through the fictional, small, Welsh fishing town, Llareggub (buggerall spelt backwards) seeing and revealing the dreams and thoughts of its inhabitants. It begins thus:

"It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,
courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the
sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea


You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing.
Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded
town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the
invisible starfall, the darkest-beforedawn minutely dewgrazed
stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the
Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover,
the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride`."

At its deepest, the connection between Dylan's poem and Drinkwater's dream lies in their exquisite intermingling of the registers of expansiveness and intimacy. The authorial voices in both transcend the individual and the particular and yet exist to be empathically entangled in the domestic, the individual and the granular. They describe a desire to see and feel everything and still care. It is that collaboration between expansiveness and intimacy that is at the beating heart of Drinkwater's paintings.

Painted during an extended stay at the home and studio in Albi, France, of fellow Australian artist Jordy Kerwick, the series Somewhere Between The Sea and The Table extends Drinkwater's engagement with the theatre of the domestic in order to produce playful, joyful pictures.

Naive and childlike are the best but inadequate descriptors we have for painting styles like Drinkwater's. Influenced, amongst others, by COBRA painters like Karel Appel and Asger Jorn as well as the largely self-taught Sidney Nolan and other Australian modernists of the Angry Penguins group, Drinkwater's aesthetic is raw, expressive and immediate, though of course the process is far more considered and careful than the style lets on.

The eponymous Somewhere between the sea and the table, 2023, is a dense crowding of many of the repeated motifs that make-up Drinkwater's painterly language. The blue line that edges the painting's left side and curves down into the painting is, for the artist, the edge of a bath - a persistent subject and ur-form in his paintings. As in his poem, for Drinkwater, his bath, which he regards as a space of care and intimacy, often morphs in his mind's eye into the nearby harbour, and that into the ocean, all being, ultimately, vessels and containers. Hairy circular forms are simultaneously sea-urchins, shower heads and suns. Squashed into ovals, the hairy circles become eyes. For the artist the green triangle in the middle of the right side of the painting is moss and seaweed. And then, as Drinkwater describes, there are passages of pure colour and forms without immediate meaning:

“In terms of colour, it's a bit like cooking, you lay one down and it starts to tell you what to do next, it's free form jazz really, but it's not as quick. They seem spontaneous but the paintings are quite complex to resolve… to get all the nuanced and colour relationships working together well. There are moments when it's about painting, and there are moments when it's about content and then at some point painting takes over again, and the painting I working on really needs to be resolved as a picture”

Each of Drinkwater's paintings is a loose, associative journal of sorts. In There on the sand, 2023, which recalls time spent in the Montauk house of another artist friend, the curving contours of a bath in the top right quadrant of the work merge with the abstracted and reduced armature of a deckchair, articulated in the parallel white lines that extend from the left to the right of the painting, to give the composition structure. In the bottom left the two black-spoked yellow wheels of the deckchair seem to become subaquatic lifeforms, mixing it up with the fish and seaweed. To their right, along the bottom of the picture, is a hairy, white squished circular form - one of the quasi-sea urchins that Drinkwater has been fascinated with forever, having grown up exploring rock-pools and sea beds. Any of these figurative cues can serve as a portal into the painting for the viewer, and once inside its world, they can make of their visit and its sights, what they wish.

Maitre D, 2023, meanwhile, remembers a lunch during Drinkwater's stay in Albi, when his young daughter, the stick-like figure in the centre, hosted with energetic and serious professionalism. The painting is full of the artist's familiar circular forms, perhaps the wheels of his daughter's bike, wheels of cheese, sea-urchins or suns or all at once.
A visual poetry of the everyday Drinkwater's paintings are generous and allusive invitations to enjoy these moments of shared intimacy.