Interview: James McGrath on his show at Olsen Irwin Gallery

James McGrath

Until he began to practice baroque technique, James McGrath had struggled to marry his two interests, architecture and painting. Vogue Living writer Dijana Kumurdian spoke to McGrath about his latest exhibition and how it confronts his relationship with libraries, ancient knowledge, and his homeland, Australia.

Now, the Sydney-based artist is known for oil paintings that use architectural theory and technology – as well as the lessons of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masters in which he was trained – to experiment with space, perspective and dimension and to explore concepts through vivid figurations of elements from nature.

Lofty as ever, McGrath’s latest exhibition Lacuna/Anamnesis – which opened last night at Olsen Irwin gallery – is based around notions of knowledge lost or missing (lacunae), as well as that which is inherited through native lands or common knowledge (anamnesis).


James McGrath, 'Night Anamnesis 2' (oil on canvas)

James McGrath, ‘Night Anamnesis 2’ (oil on canvas)

VL: It’s clear that books, in their physicality, are important to you. Why did you choose to paint shelves of old, bound volumes?
JM: I have twin girls, and spent a lot of time reading to them. It was in these moments that I realised how special books are, for imagination and sharing. I had to paint something about it. In terms of physicality, the surface of the books I paint are extremely important. I paint them in “relief”, as if I am sculpting them. If you touch the paintings, they would feel like the surface as much as look like it; a metaphor of Braille, I suppose…

VL: Do you think we are losing something, culturally, by surrendering our connection to libraries? When you were in Prague, did you feel tapped in to some source of ancient knowledge?
JM: To be alone in a library (hopefully an ancient one) can be confronting. I felt my presence in the space was a fleeting moment in a sea of continuity of text and history. How do you paint this? I choose animals such as horses or rabbits to express different states of mind within the library.


James McGrath, 'Night Lacuna 2' (oil on canvas)

James McGrath, ‘Night Lacuna 2’ (oil on canvas)

VL: Your practice is rooted in European traditions, but have you felt any anamnesis stemming from your upbringing in Australia?
JM: I trained as a studio assistant in Paris to a neo-Renaissance artist, and in Australia to perhaps our greatest landscape artist, Arthur Boyd. Since I was 17 years old, I have had to try to reconcile European painting technique and vision within the Australian landscape. This was the anamnesis and lacuna stemming from my upbringing in Australia. Hopefully, this show has finally resolved some of these tensions.


James McGrath, 'Lacuna 3' (oil on canvas)

James McGrath, ‘Lacuna 3’ (oil on canvas)


James McGrath’s Lacuna/Anamnesis is on at Olsen Irwin gallery until 12 May.
63 Jersey Road Woollahra Sydney NSW 2025. Ph: 9327 3922.

Words: Dijana Kumurdian
Images courtesy the gallery and artist.


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