“Part of the reason for doing the PHD was to find out why I am repeating, what it is about repetition that I like.” A conversation with James Quin.

James Quin is an artist based on the Wirral. He has recently completed a practice-based PHD at Newcastle University. Quin’s research, The Temporal Conditions of the Static Image: Repetition as an Engine of Difference, examines the relations between painting, repetition and time. James is course leader on the BA Fine Art Painting course at University Centre, St Helens College, having recently worked as senior lecturer in Fine Art at De Montfort University. He is a member of Contemporary British Painting, an artist led organisation which explores and promotes current trends in British painting through group exhibitions, talks, publications and the donation of paintings to art museums.  

Brendan and I visited James to speak about his practice and look at his most recent body of work.

We are standing in James’s studio. On a table, to the right, there are paints, brushes, turpentine, painting mediums, pallets and pots, in which paint has been mixed. Next to this is another table covered with reference material and small works on paper. To the left of the studio is a small woodwork station with an arrangement of tools on the wall above. The walls opposite us and to our left are filled with 30 small works in progress, some on canvas and some on wood panels. James works on all of these simultaneously.

“So today I’ve been thinking about them all,” James tells us, “ I find that really useful because you can do something to one painting then think, this is interesting, I can see how it affects the others. I find that more interesting than trying to bring one painting to a satisfactory finish, rather than banging your head against a wall with one piece. Because over time, new things start to introduce themselves into your work and it seems crazy that they should just remain in one piece”.

The small works on paper scattered on the table to the right are little trials, to see which images might work as paintings on canvas or panel. He is using acrylic, gouache and watercolour.

“I’m seeing which ones are worth keeping. It might be that something happens on these and then I think, right I’m going to try it on that one [points to a painting on the wall]. They are all kind of in conversation.”

The paintings on the studio walls in front of us feature images of artworks by artists of the past. They are not direct copies, they are copies of art featured in books and they have been altered, but the original artworks can clearly be recognised. There are works by Mondrian, Matisse, Rembrandt, Bruegel, Chardin… The same images are repeated again and again, in the different paintings on the wall. 

Speaking about paintings in books, James says, “That’s how most of us encounter paintings for the first time isn’t it? And then later we might see the real thing. They are paintings about what happens when the space of painting is translated into the space of a page. I’m also interested in illusion. I’m interested in Trompe-l’œil illusion, so there is an awful lot of that going on in the paintings.

In Breguel’s paintings, for instance, there is a convincing illusion of depth in the space of the painting, but when the painting is photographed, it flattens it out. So then you’ve got a flat image, printed on a flat surface, which is then painted on a flat surface. So how do I then play around with space? In a sense, that’s why I went for the Trompe-l’œil. In the Dutch Trompe-l’œil painting there has to be a very shallow depth of field in order for it to work. It’s possible to play around with that illusion of depth in realist paintings, as with the kind of Trompe-l’œil that you see in Dutch still lifes. The shallow depth of field when painting a book on a table, for example, is ideal for Trompe-l’oeil.”

James makes photocopies of paintings in books and then works from these copies. Sometimes the photocopy also captures a bit of his hand, or a scrap of paper that was used to mark the page. With some of the paintings that he is working on, he is beginning to incorporate these accidental additions.

“I am interested in the processes I use to gather the source material, in trying to get into the painting something of the way the source material was collected and manipulated – a record of its own production.

Repetition and illusion are my main interests. I think I was putting a PowerPoint together one time for a particular talk and I realised there were all these repetitive strategies going on in my practice, whether it was copying paintings from books or paintings that had been in scenes in films, or repeating paintings that I had already made. It was there and I thought, why is that? Why have you not noticed that before? So, part of the reason for doing the PHD was to find out why I am repeating, what it is about repetition that I like. Because it’s often seen in a very negative light.”

“But they used to do it all the time,” I say. “In the 19th century painters would do it for all sorts of reasons.”

“And maybe there’s something to do with our modern obsession with authenticity?”

“Well, we have very different ideas about what those two words ‘authentic’ and ‘original’ mean. Modernism kind of turns its back on the past; it pretends to, but it doesn’t really.”  

Brendan asks, “Are there any reasons why you chose those particular images?”

“Well there are lots of different reasons,” says James. “For example, I picked Hunters in the Snow because it’s in the Library scene in Tarkovsky’s Solaris and so is Gustave Doré’s Don Quixote. Do you remember the scene where everything goes weightless in the library? The space station goes into kind of weightlessness and there’s a book that floats past and it’s opened at that image. It’s a fantastic scene. So they’re not picked randomly. Although having said that, with the Mondrians, somebody posted on Facebook that they’d gone and taken a close up of a Mondrian and I really liked that. You know, when you do that and don’t really think about it, the close up, the way it is cut.”  

We talk about Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.

Brendan says, “When I was at school, we had the Thames and Hudson book, ‘From Giotto to Cezanne’, they get you to read it when you’re like, 14. I loved Breugel. Then last year I went to Vienna, I went in a Bruegel room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum and it freaked me out, because I’d only ever seen them in books. I had a weird experience, because there were about a third of all the Breugels in the world, in one room. Hunters in the Snow was one of them. I couldn’t stop thinking it was out of a book; thinking of it how it is in a book. I remembered them all from when I was about 14 or 15, even though I hadn’t looked at them for a long time, but my memories of them are just from in books. It was almost like I couldn’t see them as real paintings.”

“There is also that state of being a bit starstruck by the paintings,” I said.

“Yeah, when I was 15, I never thought I would go and see them, I thought I would only ever see them in the Thames and Hudson book”.  

“That’s an interesting point you make”, says James, “Because you know, Richter did that Titian painting? He was asked, why did you do that? And he said it was because he really wanted the original painting but couldn’t afford it. So there’s a sense of desire about making these. It is a desire to have some kind of a relationship with the originals, trying to step into another painter’s boots and see what he or she experienced when painting that original. But it’s not just homage, you know. I mean that’s the kind of criticism this kind of work opens itself up to; that it’s art about Art, it’s art for Art’s sake and you’re only going to get something out of it if you know the paintings. But I don’t know if that’s true, because if you are in a field of repeating images, whether you know what paintings the images were taken from or not, it doesn’t matter, you still know you are seeing the same thing again and again and again.

It’s an aspect of time in painting that isn’t really often discussed. Most people discuss time in painting in relation to how it is represented or depicted on the surface of the painting. With a field of repeating images, the time in the painting is externalised and it does something very peculiar to your perception of time.”

The paintings that we see in front of us are to be added to a larger body of work, 45 paintings, that were made as part of James’ PHD. It will become one piece of work, in effect.  

“Ideally all the paintings would be shown together because, in conception, that was what I was interested in”, says James “But then there’s the real world. The challenge is that when you take one out of the series and show it on its own, it stands alone as a painting but still says something about the whole; that it doesn’t get lost in its singularity. So there is a problem… well, not a problem, it’s a difficulty. They’re not all painted the same way either and there’s that idea of the painter having a style. But there are ways of showing smaller groupings and still getting across what I’m interested in, without having to show all 70 of them together.”  

Some of the paintings in this series are painted on panels with sides that have been angled at 45 degrees. When you view the painting, its sides appear to disappear and the surface of the painting seems as thin as paper. When the painting is viewed at a certain angle and lit in a certain way, a shadow is created and the perceived boundaries of the painting are taken outside of the physical form.

“And the paintings are sort of book-sized aren’t they?” I say.

“They are book-sized yes, intentionally”.

“But also when you make something this size and when you’re painting so many at once,” I continue, “It helps you to not be so precious about it. When you’re just working on one picture, or just two or three, it can be quite intense and you want to make sure you don’t get it wrong. Like, when you said you were thinking of over-painting bits on some of the paintings and I’m thinking ‘but what if it goes wrong!?’ but of course it doesn’t matter if you have 40 paintings.”

“Yeah if you’ve got 40 on the go and you lose two or three it is OK. It’s interesting, you know, because it’s very different from the way I used to work. I used to work really fast on one image and try and nail it by the end of the day, but the success rate was terribly low. So I was actually throwing away more paintings than keeping, but this way forces me to bring them all up together to a certain point and then really start to take risks, if you like.”

In 2016, James had an exhibition of his work at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, titled Once is Not Enough #3. It was based on the idea of a labyrinth.  

“The first version I did was actually in a virtual labyrinth. I digitised the paintings and put them into this space, but I rejected that completely, I thought, once you get past the excitement of digital technology it became an empty experience. So instead I physically built a labyrinth, which you wandered around. It originally had walls, but again, I didn’t like that, so the walls came off and the paintings were hung on the timber structure. They were all at the same height and I noticed this very weird thing happening.”

The weird thing that happened is referred to as ‘Parallax.’ Parallax can be simply described as ‘the apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer’.

James explained what happened, “The paintings that were hung closest to you were travelling at different speeds from those on the wall behind [as you navigate the space]. It started to set the whole thing in motion, because, without the walls, you can see through to the back. You have to experience it, it’s very odd. And then, because there are 5 or 6 versions of the same painting, you start to notice them; you start to almost build a book, by going from page to page as you wander through this space. The whole space is set into motion and you’re constantly getting different viewpoints and you’re seeing them simultaneously, you’re seeing them successively, everything is moving, they change direction as you do”.

This installation of paintings related to James’s PHD research paper – The Temporal Conditions of the Static Image: Repetition as an Engine of Difference. James elaborated on his research into the ways in which time and space are affected by an encounter with repeating images.

Our normal perception of time is a linear sense; where B follows A, the present recedes into the past in anticipation of the future. The past however does not vanish into nothingness, it continues to exist in the past. In an encounter with repetition, this linear time is put under pressure as the past is re-inserted into the present. This ‘stutter in time is, however, a perceptual phenomenon: a qualitative, not quantitative difference. An encounter with repetition, therefore, alters perception of its first encounter. A second encounter with an identical or near identical repetition marks a temporal difference from the first and in this qualitative difference, over time, we are made aware of time flowing, by qualities that differ at different times.

The difference is what French philosopher Henri Bergson refers to as a ‘mobility of consciousness’, the perception and processing of two events as they occur in time. Memory of a first encounter, with a painting, for example, must be held in mind in order to account for the second. Memory in this instance is essentially ‘difference’. While this process naturally occurs, it is heightened in a field of repeated images, where memory is forced to constantly parse the difference between a series of identical or near identical images. In this sense, past, present and future coalesce.

In essence, what I am describing are the temporal implications of a series as opposed to a sequence, where the former is non-linear and the latter is linear. Paintings, encountered as a series of repeating images can, therefore, no longer be described as static images; they have become mobile in time as they engender a situation where the ‘then’ becomes a ‘now’ anticipating a ‘next’ ad infinitum; a stutter in time.

You can see more of James Quin’s work on his blog  http://james-quin.blogspot.com