Cutler Footway

When Bruce James returned to his home town of Ayr in North Queensland in the mid-2000s, his reputation as an Australian art critic in print, radio and television was soaring. Like James Gleeson in his fifties, Bruce James turned from words to a reclusive period of painting and drawing. Now, as Cutler Footway, he has just been awarded the 2020 Percival Portrait Painting Prize. In Issue 46, Artist Profile travelled to his home and studio as the artist prepared for his first solo exhibition.

Why did you leave art journalism and broadcasting?
I grew very tired of words. They crushed me. As just about any jobbing journo or critic will tell you, writing can become a slog. It’s enervating and can be hugely destructive of your peace of mind. Moreover, I was never tough enough to be a consistently good critic, though I believe I was often a good writer. Essentially, writing words prevented me from making images.

Was it a struggle being an artist and writer?
Yes. And as a result I was always punctilious about separating my own artistic prejudices and tastes from whatever I was reviewing. Any deeper conflict? No, because at least it was all about art, everything came back to that. So, any idea of conflict is overstated. The idea of connection, of community, is much more important. And I always understood it as a privilege to work in the world of art, in any capacity. In Australia, those critics who were practising painters are amongst the most significant. Elwyn Lynn, James Gleeson and Nancy Borlase, for example, all began – and continued – as exhibiting painters. Somehow, there would be a way to return to painterly practice. Even for me.

When was ‘Cutler Footway’ born?
I felt I needed a memorable pseudonym for the paintings. The first time I signed a work with the ‘Cutler Footway’ name was in 1983. And now it is inveterate. Automatic. The actual Cutler Footway is a pedestrian overpass connecting Darlinghurst and Paddington (in Sydney) which I crossed almost daily for many years, doing my critical rounds.

Then, when I left journalism and broadcasting, I didn’t want people looking at the paintings and thinking ‘that’s a Bruce James’. I want them to think of them as ‘Cutler Footway’. I think of my work, and talk about it, in the second person. I would never imagine someone referring to these paintings as by someone called Bruce James. At this point, at least three decades on, it’s inconceivable to me.

I notice that your palette hasn’t shifted a great deal between your ’70s works and what you’re doing today. Of course, your palette has become more sophisticated. Yet you’re still creating your colours from the same three primaries.
It’s a perfectly legitimate observation. Yes, I’ve become more sophisticated, more refined, less garish, less gauche. But the fundaments haven’t changed. I find myself wedded to three very particular primaries, plus the tones of black and white. Despite having experimented with a less rudimentary range of colours, I have not resiled from this extremely reduced, almost primitive palette.

Are you aware this palette reveals your painting’s natural compositional balance?
Every millimetre of the surface is important. The furthest corner is as important as the most central point. In so much work that I see there’s not enough consideration of the complete image. The picture operates in every inch of its surface, edge to edge. Of course, I envy painters who have the aplomb, the confidence, to leave whole swathes of their surfaces untouched.

It’s hard to deny that this palette reveals strong Cezanne and Gauguin influences.
Inescapable ones. In truth, I think the discoveries of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism have been grossly under-utilised. There remain so many rich veins to be exploited. I’m still infatuated with High Renaissance and Mannerist painting, of course. But we’re now too far removed from the Renaissance for it to have a consistent practical application for us, leastways as painters. But Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and others are much more immediately useful. Cezanne underpins the work of so many painters, often unconsciously. He opened so much territory, so many new directions. Cezanne is, well, a planet. A whole new place. But for that reason, and for all my love of him, he can seem alien from time to time. Gauguin is more approachable, more fallible. I respond to his weaknesses as much as his strengths.

I noticed that the many still life arrangements throughout your studio and home eventually enter your paintings.
Yes. I have a very intense relationship with these objects. They’re more than mere elements in still lifes or interiors. They’re very active in my life and in my work. Most of them find their way into the paintings, though I shift and modify them obsessively. The objects that survive this process have really earned their place in the finalised work. Well, if any work is ever finalised. I am an inveterate revisionist.

You also deliberately camouflage time with the content of your paintings and drawings?
Yes, when I paint landscapes, I generally don’t include power lines, or cars … anything identifiably contemporary. My still lifes have ceramic vessels that could have been made a couple of years ago, or a century ago, you wouldn’t know. I often paint books, but rarely reveal the title or date of the book. And when I paint or draw people, I most commonly render them naked, so the person is rarely shown wearing even so much as a watch. They are timeless, literally. My instinct is to eliminate anything that is decisively modern.

For A Scene of Annunciation in the Burdekin (2018-19) you said, ‘I didn’t want an angelic angel’, it had to be real. What did you mean?
I’m painting a presence that has a certain angelic association, but it’s really a performance. The two figures are based on one of my grandsons and his mother. So they’re identifiable in that sense, they’re real, and they’re in a real place, the Burdekin estuary. I’ve featured some signature still-life elements in my signature colours and tints. Thus, this one picture could stand for all the other pictures, good or bad, remarkable or indifferent. It’s a shop sign, I suppose. And, of course, you may or may not want to enter the shop.

What is this spatial awkwardness in your paintings, especially when the male form is painted into the landscape?
As much as anything, that’s a technical issue. I struggle with anatomy more than I should, especially after so many years of dedicated life drawing. But I’m trying to carve a legitimate place in Australian twenty-first century art for the natural male nude, the simple supine male nude in the landscape, and one with very little erotic charge. I am in awe of the great tradition of recumbent female nudes in Western art. That’s my starting point. The personal benchmark is not Titian or Goya, but Gauguin, for me the unparalleled exemplar of the great reclining female nude. I could never come within cooee of Gauguin, and it would be vanity to try, but I see his as the standard to aspire to.

Your use of colour seems to have found its natural rhythm.
I am an intuitive colourist, if not entirely unlettered. And of course I do work with a reasonably pronounced red-green colour ‘deficiency’. I don’t see this as a disability, however, rather as a virtue. Or a disability which of necessity I have made a virtue. But I accept that not everyone would share this point of view. Over many years of active painting I’ve taught myself to avoid the most common red-green rookie errors, but not without exception. I assume that some viewers will find this or that image colouristically off-key. But this is how I see the world, through my eyes, into my head and onto the canvas or panel.

 This interview was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 46, 2019

The Percival Portrait Painting Prize
May – June; online only
Perc Tucker Regional Gallery, QLD

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