Jamie North: Peering Through the Cracks
VAULT speaks to artist Jamie North about his living sculptures.
Image credit: Jamie North, Remainder No.27, 2021, cement, marble dust, coal ash, recycled glass, pumice, Australian native plants, 30 cm diameter. Courtesy the artist and The Renshaws, Brisbane. Photo: © Jamie North
It’s strange to see something alive in a gallery. It’s also strange to realise that that is strange. Yet such is the orthodoxy of the museum, which houses all kinds of art, yet very rarely provides a home for life. At first glance, Jamie North’s Spoils (Hillsdale) no. I (2021), housed in Cement Fondu in Sydney, seems to continue this unstated norm. The work is an imposing industrial column composed of cement, coal ash, furnace slag, marble dust, glass and plastic fibre. However, a second glance reveals that the list does not end there. From within North’s column emerges a spiralling green vine that climbs to the crumbling structure’s upper reaches. Here, the cold materials of industry become an unlikely cradle for life. It is a juxtaposition that makes this native plant, which emerges out of the hard and hostile cement ground, seem all the more fragile, all the more tenuous and all the more precious.
When I call North to discuss the work, he surprises me. Where I had assumed that the contrast of industry and flora projected some broader commentary on the environment, North offers up a notably distinct point of departure. “The genesis of my interest began because my father was a bricklayer and a miner, so those materials – concrete and mortar, coal and slag – were always around me,” he explains. “As a builder, my dad used to purchase blocks of land and clear them of their vegetation. I was always fascinated by the way that native plants would push through the concrete on these sites.” North’s works echo this dynamic by introducing flora not as inert or inanimate objects to be acted upon, but as creative partners of sorts. His works are not manicured pot plants; they are wild, lithophytic organisms reaching through the concrete to insist on their existence. They push back.
North’s works are often created through the transformative processes of upcycling. He produced Spoils (Hillsdale) no. I, for instance, by scraping disused materials from his studio and infusing them with a new life. “I’m physically breaking up old works, smashing them with a hammer and tumbling them in a cement mixer,” he explains. “I try not to rely on quarry products and I try to minimise the cement content of the works, as it is so energy intensive to produce.” There is an innate physicality and labour in
North’s sculptures, which seem to stray beyond the assumed borders of conventional artistic practice. North and I are speaking over video-chat, yet even from my limited view of his studio, his work’s intense physicality is suggested by the forklift parked a few feet away.
North is the first to admit that he does not have a typical art background: he didn’t go to art school and he never formally studied sculpture. “I don’t have any art training. I have a certificate in photography, that’s all,” North says. Yet when he finally turned to sculpture, it was not an alien experience. Quite the opposite. “I always felt that when I was doing photography, I was an outlier from my family,” he explains. “But as soon as I started making work with my hands, I felt an immediate and direct connection to my family lineage.” North’s family migrated from Wales and they all worked in the steel industry, a fact that forms the historical and deeply personal ground upon which North’s practice is built. Rather than departing from these legacies, North’s work represents a continuity. “My dad died mining, so the very act of making is powerful,” he tells me. “For me, art making is about connection between all things.” His sculptures are constituted by a long list of raw materials, yet, speaking with North, one gets a sense that these conceptual and biographical connections are the true armature structuring and giving shape to his work.
When I talk to North, he is working on a series of sculptures for the launch of The Renshaws’ gallery – a new purpose-built space in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley that replants the seeds of the earlier Ryan Renshaw Gallery. Rather than simply creating works that find an incidental home in the space, North is creating pieces that directly respond to its architectural morphology. “We love working with artists that reach for something more with each exhibition,” the gallery’s director Danielle Renshaw explains. “We wanted challenging artworks that really spoke to the space for the first exhibition.” In his forthcoming exhibition Falsework, North’s work will look to fulfil this ambitious task by creating a visual dialogue between the sculptural arches that he is producing for the show and the brass trusses found in the building’s architecture. The artwork and the architecture share in a synchronicity, as both bring typically underlying structures to the fore. These are discrete entities, but for the duration of the exhibition they are brought together and suspended in a harmony of forms.
This seems to be the unabating strength in North’s work, this ability to draw together even the most unlikely of pairings and produce a synthesis that is at once robust and intricate. Through his practice, North reworks prosaic materials and plays with recognisable forms until their unseen poetics finally reveal themselves. And, like a plant pushing through concrete, North’s sculptures slowly emerge to stage a moment of perfect contradiction.
Image credit: Jamie North, Spoils No.2, 2021, cement, coal ash, blast furnace slag, marble dust, glass, construction fibre, Australian native plants 2100 cm x 400 cm diameter. Courtesy the artist and The Renshaws, Brisbane Photo: © Jamie North
Image credit: Jamie North, Remainders (Proto No.03), 2016, cement, blast furnace slag, coal ash, oyster shell, Australian native plants, 55 cm diameter. Courtesy the artist and The Renshaws, Brisbane Photo: © Jamie North
This article was originally published in VAULT Magazine Issue 35 (Aug – Oct).
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