To and fro: a conversation with James Cousins

James Cousins has long been interested in the
contingencies that painting relies upon: how do
we recognise an image? What systems guide our
understanding? What processes might be used to
disrupt these assumptions?
His recent works made from 2009-2015, brought
together for the first time in the exhibition Restless Idiom, unsettle our
expectations of landscape images. Each painting consists
of a reproduced image, mostly sourced from colour plates
in a botanical guide. Though they may be familiar as types
of flowers or trees, layers of paint interfere with their
The systems used to puncture the image are an important
part of Cousins’ practice. In these works, layers of vinyl
stencils are applied to a base layer (or layers) of paint. An
image is reproduced on top of the vinyl before the stencils
are peeled away, revealing the ground paint beneath.
Cousins often then applies another added interruption,
though here the approach differs from work to work. Rolling
stripes of colour, using spray guns and smearing swathes
of paint are all techniques used to further fracture his
images. The recognisable is consequently de-centralised,
sandwiched between, under and on top of the abstract.
Notably, Cousins’ process involves constantly negating
whatever decision-making process came before, maintaining
a captivating tension between what might otherwise be
perceived as contradictory concerns and effects: the
figurative and the abstract; illusion and materiality; the
surface and the pictorial. The result is a captivating optical
instability not dissimilar to an ambiguous pattern, where the
eye constantly oscillates between seeing the painting as
operating in one way, and then another.
It is in this constant to-and-fro-ing that Cousins escapes
the reductive and binary tendencies of many of paintings’
‘isms’, allowing instead for his works to prompt an active and
prolonged act of looking; one premised on an uncertainty
of the image as well as the paintings’ constructions. By
placing the image into an equilibrial tension with the material
effects of specific processes, Cousins provokes the viewer
to carefully consider what it is that he or she is – or indeed,
isn’t – looking at.
Ioana Gordon-Smith: It seems to me that one thing that distinguishes your practice is how you unite often oppositional aspects of
paint: its illusory possibilites as well as its inescapable
materiality. The combination creates a compelling
oscillation — a sort of constant visual to-and-fro-ing.
Any thoughts?
James Cousins: One of the core motivations for my work at its beginning
was to ask ‘what is a painting? When does a painting
stop becoming a painting? And how does it operate as
an artwork?’ For me, it’s about setting up paradigms,
understanding its limits, and then trying to cross those
There’s a slippage that begins to emerge between how you
understand things perceptually in terms of the space: one
part of the painting will look like its operating one way then
it slips into another part and it begins operating in another
way. There’s a kind of oscillation between things, which
creates a sense of dislocation.
One commentator described the reproduced images
in your works as being specifically insignificant, but
familiar or recognisable. What attracts you to
a particular images or fragments – what are you
looking for?
Initially, at the early stages of the work, when I was working
solely from landscape, I had just returned from living
overseas, and I was looking to try to ask questions about the
legitimacy of images to talk about place in a meaningful way.
If you look at images of New Zealand — say for instance
the ubiquitous images of Mitre Peak — they say nothing
about the place. All they do is talk about a convention of
representation. They might say something if you take a
snapshot that is related to a memory, but when you seen
these images co-opted into tourism for consumption, there’s
a presumed transparency about the conventions that are
used. I was interested in trying to deflate that somehow
rather than deconstruct it. So when I chose landscape
images, they were very banal. I was riffing to a certain extent
off Gerhard Richter, from whom I’d learnt to use images
that are banal enough to allow a gap to occur for viewers
to generate multiple interpretations that aren’t didactic, but
instead ask questions.
If you look at the re-produced images in some of my older
works, you can see that they are simply types: a ridge; a
mountain; a river; a geyser; a waterfall. At the time, I was
interested in that discourse between photography and
painting, with both different types of assumption regarding
representation. There was a period where I was interested in
the painted representational elements being the illusion, and
the abstract being the real.
I then started working from photographs of flowers, for a
similar reason, but they additionally have a history of being
used in imagery as conventional symbols of beauty.
Can you talk a bit about the processes you use to
disrupt or deflate the image? In your earlier works, you
applied thin strips of masking tape to the canvas, often
in a grid-like arrangement, before painting an image and
removing the tape to reveal the ground beneath. More
recently, you’ve used vinyl cutters instead of tape and
introduced mechanical process or spray guns at some
points. What technologies do you employ and what do
they do for you?
The masking tape was an earlier device I used. My earliest
works using flowers had incredibly small, 2mm-diameter
dots made with masking tape covering the canvas, on top
of which I painted the image before removing the dots.
There were hundreds of dots — we had dot-removing
parties. It had an effect where if you looked at the painting
up close, it was abstract, and when you moved away, you
saw the image.
I had been working with a machine where I can apply a
whole lot of arcs into a piece of vinyl. And then I would
turn the canvas 90 degrees and cut the arcs again. So you
have this literal mapping of space outside of the support.
Before I started cutting the arcs, I would make a drawing of
the canvas by putting it on the floor, laying down a piece of
paper that was the same size on top and pouring black in
onto it. I would then use the physical characteristics of the
canvas to create a kind of mark, just picking up the canvas
and holding it for 1,2, 3, 4 ,5 counts. These were just rules
I would create because otherwise I didn’t know how to
engage with the work. But I would make rules and then try
to break them. So if I began by picking up the canvas from
one side and then another, I’d think, well, why can’t I pick it
up from the corner? And then things become complicated,
which is good.
Initially the stencils were one offs. The more recent
introduction of the vinyl cutter into the process allowed me
to make multiple stencils, broadening the scope of how I
used the screens. Of course this also introduced the use
of a computer into my practice and has had an influence on
how I approach the drawing of the stencils.
I’m fascinated in this idea of mapping. It’s a term that
you use quite specifically and it also crops up in Ruth
Watson’s essay Fast paint and interference: James
Cousins’ Signal painting and the de-territorialisation of
the image. Can you tell me more about mapping as it
relates to your work?
As a concept, one can make a distinction between mapping
and tracing. Tracing relies on recognition, in that you’re
merely re-presenting something: nothing’s changed, it’s
referent remains intact. Whereas mapping creates a new
understanding of something – or rather you might not
understand it, but it creates new territory. It means that
the process of mapping isn’t invisible. With photography
perhaps, you assume the process is invisible. These
processes here are for me a form of mapping – a coding.
It’s a bit like looking at a Mondrian: you can understand that
there’s a strict process of making behind the work; but you
can’t necessarily work it out.
It is difficult to decipher the order in which you’ve
painted the layers in your work.
You can explain to people that the reproduced image was
painted last and they still won’t see it that way. It’s related
to the way we think of positive and negative space. I’m not
really interested in the mechanics of the way we perceive
things, but that optical effect of moving between does offer
a ploy to encourage a duration of looking. When the work is
good, it’s about slowing things down.
Do you set up any type of rules or systems that are
deliberately contradictory to create the tensions that
encourage looking?
I think that’s what happens. Out of sheer desperation, you
start making a picture. And often you’ll use another painting
to start. I was pouring painting down something else and I
placed a canvas underneath that caught the drips, so that I’d
have something to respond to. It’s contrived completely, but
then you critique that or respond to it by doing something
that equally contrived but in a different way. You get to a
point where the painting tells you what to do. And perhaps
from there there’s nothing specific to locate about my
engagement with the work or the making of it.
I’m curious about relationship between your use of a
vinyl ‘screen’ and the computer screen. Do you think at
all about your work in relation to the digital world?
I think possibly the works echo something about the nature
of screens without directly talking about that, in the way that
other artists might. When you’re looking at a digital screen,
you’re looking at layers of flat upon flat upon flat: that’s now
how we negotiate space.
For me, though, the idea of screens is more closely related
to trying to create an opticality. There’s an artist who
employs op-like components in her work, R H Quaytman
who I find interesting: I like that way she talks about using
op patterns not to escape vision, but rather to make vision
more visible. You become more conscious of the fact that
you’re looking. The screens allow an image to be placed on
the canvas, but their main role is to activate a consciousness
of looking.
Ruth Watson, in her essay, notes that colour is used to
reinforce “the lacunary effects of looking, denying us
comforting hues or conventional spatial illusions.” How
do you approach colour?
The use of colour has become more complex as the
work has developed. In recent works, at first glance
the accumulation of colours has a tonal or gradient-like
referent. Each of the layers use colour to differing effect,
to differentiate each layer, one layer building upon and
responding to the previous. Colour here is used as a
kind of key or legend that plays with the varying degrees
of transparency, solidity, fluidity, etc. particular to the
process used. In more recent work, I’ve begun to sample
combinations of colours from potential images in a code like
manner, that might be used later in the work and incorporate
them into the layers. For me it’s interesting to see how these
decisions based on what has already happened and what
might happen combine.
It seems to me that your work might find more parallels
with international practices: for instance, you’ve
previously noted that you find resonance with the work
of Gerhard Richter. How does the international scene
inform your work?
Well, I was very influenced by my time in Europe and living
in the UK. I started making work again when I was living
there. Two of the big motivations for that was seeing Robert
Ryman and Gerhard Richter shows and also seeing Barnett
Newman’s work and becoming aware of the heterogeneous
nature of painting. It has this contingent reliance on
materiality but on the other hand it operates completely in
a completely different sphere. There’s something about
painting that’s not definitive: there’s something that’s up for
negotiation in painting.


What do you mean by that?
Well, the only way that I could see any validity in making
paintings was to ask that question: ‘what is this object?’
— but in a way that wasn’t restrained by that legacy of
abstraction in terms of non-compositional strategies and
using systems and processes that allude to the removal of
the hand, eluding any kind of expressive subjectivity so the
resulting works had some kind of legitimacy as ‘fact’. I really
like that idea, but I think it’s impossible.
And reductive too, I think.
It’s very reductive: it leaves begging the question of how the
work engages with the world.
I think there’s a particular kind of rigour about looking that
I’m interested in. Robert Ryman says you have to learn to
listen, to develop a certain kind of literacy, like when you’re
listening to jazz. There’s the same sort of looking that
happens when you look at painting. Whether it’s an illusion
or not, there’s a certain kind of rigour in investigating what a
painting might be afresh, for me anyway.
Restless Idiom covers the period from 2009-2015. Can
you tell me about these years? Do they represent a
particular shift in your process or concerns from what
came before? What concerns are of more significance
to you now?
I think work prior to this period had a focus on a certain
idea kind of contingency in painting. I would combine two
distinct elements, the grid and a sourced photographic
image to heighten the material and non-material aspects
of painting. Put simply, a paintings surface is something
you simultaneously look through as a window and at as a
surface. I was toying with how these ways of looking nullify
or negate each other. When reading the surface the illusion
or representational image is nullified and when viewing the
painting as a kind of illusionist space, its material presence
is nullified. I was interested in how these contradictory
modes of looking activated a potential split and what that
might mean. Eventually I tired of the reliance upon a type
of binary that the work relied upon and how the way I was
using the grid necessitated a kind of exclusion from the
world. I think the works presented in this show still engage
with a certain ideas contingency but they track moves away
from that previous sense of removal.
How do you know when a painting is successful
or a failure?
Failure is when there isn’t enough in there to activate that
durational looking. If the work doesn’t ask you to look at it,
then it won’t ask any questions about what you’re looking at.
Published by Te Uru
Waitakere Contemporary Gallery
on the occasion of:
James Cousins: Restless Idiom
28 November 2015 – 21 February 2016
Curated by Ioana Gordon-Smith
Publication design: Julia Gamble
Paper stock: Spicers Nettuno 140gsm
Edition: 1000 copies
ISBN 978-0-473-34433-7

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