Jim Paterson

For the last 25 years artist Jim Paterson has been a resident of the outback mining town of Broken Hill, yet he only recently started to feel comfortable calling himself a local. It’s taken just as long for the reputation of his art to filter through the art world but unlike his local resident status, he’s not preoccupied with whether his art will ever fit in – it won’t.

Melbourne-born Jim Paterson remembers in his youth watching the ships come into Port Melbourne in the 1950s. These soot-filled industrial memories have provided Paterson with visual stimulus throughout his artistic career. They are still present in his wildly imaginative worlds with maligned machinery and tortured landscapes that spew forth grotesqueries and fantasms.

Through his limited chosen mediums, he sets a platform for some extraordinary images and is able to invent a universe where he makes the rules, suspends the gravity and peoples it with weird beasts and humans. His works sometimes picture a troubling world, but this Broken Hill Bruegel has for years had the courage to pursue these brave themes and images from his regional base with a conviction that belies his laconic appearance. There’s no denying it – Jim’s work is intense and, at first glance, so is Jim. He speaks with a modicum of words but has a sharp understanding of people, taking everything around him in with a quiet and patient politeness.

He is very modest about his highly imaginative art. Until recently, he regularly exhibited at the now defunct Place Gallery in Melbourne, where he was celebrated as an iconic image-maker. There are those in the know who regard him as a seminal original talent but the general art world has remained at arm’s length. It may be time for a second look.

Jim is friends with Peter Booth, and shares a similar artistic bent, producing dark, fantastical works based on the follies of human desire, frustrations and base elements. He learnt his craft in similar conditions to Booth’s industrial Sheffield. In his younger days in Port Melbourne, which was one of the country’s busiest shipping ports, Jim constantly drew the parade of ships that ploughed their way into the bay. Even when he later moved to Broken Hill, a deliberate contrast of scenery would find these ships in his images, hovering over the desert landscapes.

During his childhood, Jim was bedridden after some illnesses and also had to cope with chronic asthma. He would draw to while away the hours. This taught him the value of patience and the importance of committing himself to a drawing. He went to art school, then took on regular jobs and adopted a hardworking approach to life, but at all times continued to work away at his art. Like many young struggling artists, he did a variety of jobs to survive: abattoir worker, street sweeper, garbage man, railway fettler. He drifted around the country spending time working in the outback which eventually prompted him

to move to Broken Hill, where he finally settled down. Asked on his move away from Melbourne, he says: “Spending time working in the outback I started to like the idea of being cut off from the big cities. I spent some of my youth in Ballarat in a mining town and once a friend lent me his car to go drawing and I drove straight to Broken Hill. Walking down Argent Street for the first time was a secure feeling for me. I didn’t know anybody and had no friends or family there but I decided to make the move. It was the isolation that appealed to me, the surrounding environment and the familiarity.”

Curator Hendrik Kolenberg has written about Paterson’s transition. “When Paterson left Melbourne for Broken Hill in 1990, he took with him everything that was already deeply embedded in his mind, including the experience of growing up in the outer suburb of Sunshine with its post-war migrant population and of working as a labourer in various remote parts of Australia,” Kolenberg wrote. “It is no surprise therefore that he has mixed this together in his work, delivering a potent array of images connected to the sea, landscape and industry, and thereby reshaping Australia’s best known inland mining town into some place, anywhere.”

In the early stages of Jim’s art career, his precocious graphic talents caught the attention of many viewers, including that of Graeme Sturgeon, an art critic with The Australian newspaper in the 1970s and 80s. At the time, Sturgeon wrote of Jim’s figurative works: “They must rank among the most incisive psychological studies ever produced in Australia.” Maybe through lack of opportunity, indifference or the vagaries of the art world, Paterson continued to quietly work and show but remained content to make art mostly for his own purposes and satisfaction.

The space and time that his new mining town location afforded him led to new approaches. His earlier focus on portraits made way for new images of vessels, apparations hovering over land and wasted desert terrain. He pursued imaginative forms. This led to a freeing up of expectations and a more idiosyncratic viewpoint. Often the genesis of these works would come from innocuous sketches made at the pub on beer coasters. Cathy Farry, manager of the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery and Jim’s trusted friend, who recently hosted an exhibition of his art at the gallery, says: “He starts by doodling on beer coasters and then develops his stronger ideas into larger works.” Since advertisers have recently seized both sides of the humble beer coaster, Farry assures us, “He has stocked up on the old one-sided

beer coasters. He told me he has ‘a lifetime supply of them’.”

Paterson doesn’t live too far away from the local pub. He has a large warehouse a few doors down from the classic architectural jewel of Argent Street, The Palace Hotel, where the movie Priscilla Queen of the Desert was filmed. Chatting to Jim on the hotel’s historic balcony, he slowly rolls a cigarette Bryan Brown-style and describes the differences between his upbringing in Port Melbourne and his more recent life inland. “The forms all happen above the horizon line, and now the desert and the space around it becomes the sea for me,” he says. “Often in art, people let too much sentiment get in the way of their images. They fail to see originally, and come filled with a preconceived idea of what they want to do before they actually do it.”

The town really does seem to bring something special to his work. In Broken Hill, you know you are far from anywhere. The streets can be hot, and have a stifling atmosphere. Jim’s work often reflects the uncomfortable daily drives the locals must make, surrounded by the giant mining structures and industrial machinery that sit beside everyday buildings. In a lot of his work, the main subject or focal point is floating for the rest of the picture to work itself around. Forms are not grounded or made to look real, but often clumped in together, masses of congealed thoughts, unrecognisable menacing shapes, drowning or caught in tempests, falling apart or in states of stasis. Often they are populated with archetypal grotesque monumental heads, exotic fashioned skulls or beasts. He has a certain apocalyptic vision that dwells between allegory, landscape and pagan motif – it’s stream of consciousness drawing and painting.

Although the work sometimes looks raw, it doesn’t come out of any limited technical ability but is derived from a brave combination of approaches. Using flowing ink or rough compressed charcoal, he creates ghostlike echoes of mistakes, rubbed out with a hard eraser, leaving traces of marks that complement the more finished images. Some are exquisitely hatched with detail; others are cack-handed with bold, linear, lumpen marks. Most are intensely personal, with childlike freshness in their output.

This suggests that Jim enjoys doing the work and its process. For him, it’s all in the making. He works in a variety of mediums and scales but there is a real graphic quality that takes hold and creates

metaphoric depth. His daily observations of his own inner life and feelings are probably what drives his work more than any particular vision or artistic legacy. When you get to know him, Jim is a friendly and gentle soul who gets on well with his friends and the locals, but this masks a driven personality and singular commitment to his art. It would be easy to define him as a surrealist but he is more than that – the works are complete images in themselves, not part of any school of artistic thought.

His studio is filled with mantras and mottos, scrawled on drawing boards and walls across two large rooms … “Is disappointment going to make you bitter or better?” … “It’s nice to be a lunatic”. There’s the odd Philip Guston quote: “You are faced with what seems an impossibility – fixing an image you can tolerate” … “I am a moralist, and cannot accept what has not been paid for, or a form that has not been lived through”. These affirmations must keep him focused on the task at hand. There is a lifetime of drawings, mountains of his beer coaster-sized sketches pinned on every square inch, as well as photos and postcards of loved ones and favourite artworks. What stands out is a tattered but comfortable-looking fur-padded drawing chair – the control centre for these weird and confronting works. When I ask him about his driven nature and the importance of drawing, he replies with a twinkle in his eye: “It’s simple, I’d hate to think of the consequences if I wasn’t drawing daily. I’d either be in an institution or jail.”

Though far removed from the rat race, Jim’s self-chosen distance allows for plenty of retrospective observation. He’s taken the chances that a lot of younger, city-based, radical artists have promised but failed to deliver. In his works one finds risk – uncomfortable designs that seem to be on the edges of not working, though keep calling

out to the viewer to hold their attention. They show a disturbance of process that actually enhances our visual reception. His adventurous approach to image making and his single-mindedness has seen him more ambitious in recent years and developed a deep yearning to put his images and visions to good use and to again take on the commercialities of the art world.

In 2012, Jim was invited on a 10-week residency in southern Spain as part of the EMED mining cultural alliance, Broken Hill’s exchange program with artists in a fellow mining town, Nerva. Nerva’s different culture had a profound effect on him. “There were many differences in lifestyle; civil and public life was very different,” he says. “It was more embracing, a far richer social life than what I’d experienced in Broken Hill. We tend to be very withdrawn here, not just in Broken Hill, but in Australia as a whole.”

In the catalogue introduction for Drawing Imagination on Paterson’s work, the former Art Gallery of New South Wales curator Hendrik Kolenberg wrote:

“I first met Jim Paterson in March 2007, in his adopted home town of Broken Hill. I was taken to meet him at his house and studio, a former general store. It was around midday, straight after judging the Outback Art Prize. I had chosen a striking big new drawing in brown ink by Paterson as the winning work … it still hangs in my memory, hauntingly so – a ferocious apparition of impending doom. Paterson said that his drawing was based on a nightmare in which his son fell from his arms during a flood, and was later found alive in a tangled tree stump …

“His house and studio is not unlike a storehouse for theatre sets (not surprising considering he has worked as a set painter in Melbourne) – walls, shelves and benchtops in every room crowded with drawings, paintings, sculptural pieces, stacked or propped up for viewing: all reflecting the singular mind of its occupant. Big boards here and there are entirely covered with small drawings pinned to them wallpaper-style, each the kernel to a new image or variation he is exploring. In fact, his house is all studio, and brimful with drawings. It is immediately clear that Paterson is a passionate and compulsive draughtsman.
“In a small room at the back of the house flooded with daylight, there is a big adjustable wooden drawing table, and around it on the walls and on boards, many more drawings are pinned up, mostly pocket notebook size. This room is a veritable laboratory for drawing. To my delight, I found there a tiny initial study for the drawing I had chosen as a winner half an hour or so earlier. Clearly for Paterson, drawing is thinking aloud, generating other larger drawings, paintings and sculptures, usually of greater complexity.”
Jim Patterson Drawings
28 March, 2015
Harina De Otro Costal Gallery, Huelva, Spain

Courtesy of the artist

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