Born in Grimsby in 1979, James Bland studied Fine Art at Grimsby College in 1999; he was awarded at BA in Fine Art at Canterbury Christchurch Univeristy in 2003, and an MA in Fine Art there in 2005. He was elected a member of the New English Art Club in 2014, and says he finds exhibiting there a daunting though inspiring prospect considering that ‘the club was founded by forward-thinking painters like Wilson Steer and Sargent; Sickert and Gwen John were in it later.’ He now lives in Canterbury.
In his 2013 self-portrait, Bland appears as a casually dapper young man with short brown, slightly spiky, ruffled hair. This is an at once upfront yet curiously tentative view. As conveyed through semi-occluded features, he appears psychologically somewhat in retreat, glancing sideways, one eye introspectively probing, the other opaque – a bare dot of reflected light amid the circumambient darkness. ‘I hadn’t planned to paint a self-portrait that day and the only stretched canvas I had was the wrong shape, so I cropped my head a little at the side. It looks like I’m peeping round a door. However, this became the thing I liked best about the painting, the ambivalence about wanting to be seen.
‘I paint a self-portrait maybe every couple of years, but I’ve always felt very ambivalent about self-exposure. The self-portraits I’ve painted probably express this in their compositional and stylistic choices. Self-portraits are associated with introversion and self-scrutiny, but having these traits, I much prefer painting other people.’
The colours here are Sickert-like in their sombrely attenuated range (one nevertheless accented and enlivened with lead-based white paints): in the backdrop rusty ochre sketchily applied, relating tonally to forms of the lips and the bridge of the nose; and in the picture’s admixtures of brown, white and even mauvish pink paint applied with quick, calligraphic flourishes. There are also echoes here of Gwen John’s subtly modulated approach and delicate harmonies. However, the distilled stillness here does not recall the quietude of John’s portraiture; rather, as evidenced here by the blanched, even (quite possibly) moonlit complexion and the engraved shadow under his eye, his is the restless sensitivity, the quizzical yet resolute air, of someone in perpetual quest.
Referring to his 2013 self-portrait he says, ‘I’m quite physically active when I work, changing viewing position frequently. Painting myself in a mirror, I find I need to alternate this activity with the model’s role, and maybe slow down a bit in general. It also makes me realise how difficult it must be to sit for a painting. It must be like being a passenger on a long car journey.’
He recalls diverse artistic influences: ‘I lived in Italy for a short time ten years ago and fell in love first with Piero della Francesca, then with Giotto, then with Sienese painters like Sassetta and Duccio. I am also inspired by illustration and ancient sculpture and art from non-western cultures. Braque, Morandi, Gwen John, William Coldstream, Keith Vaughan and Euan Uglow all have an influence on the way I paint. Two contemporary painters I admire are Emil Robinson and Ilaria Rosselli del Turco,’
Bland’s painting Harpreet Reclining (2014) – in which a spirited young woman is seen lying with playful, voluptuous ease, clothed, on a bed – had its starting point ‘when a friend of a friend asked if I’d be interested in painting her. She was an architect, originally from Delhi, who would be free only in the evenings. I agreed and for a year we spent nearly every Wednesday night working on paintings. The first attempts were generic face/head paintings. I wouldn’t consider these portraits, except insofar as they described what she looked like. I moved on to a full-length figure painting of her reclining, taking inspiration from some of the things we’d talked about – the rooftops of Delhi, Indian art – as well as responding to her unique personal characteristics and beauty. In this sense it’s more of a portrait, though the face is obscured and there’s an element of fantasy and play.
‘Later she became the lead actor in my painting Full Moon‘ (2014)– a painting of haunting enigmatic narrative, in which dual barefoot figures (each based on Harpreet) appear: seen once upright in a white dress entering a bare, moonlit room, then lying back asleep in a chair, dressed in black, half of the latter’s face magically illumined. Two cats flit around the room, their forms partially based on a theatrical prop of a cardboard cat Bland had made in his studio.
‘Full Moon was originally inspired by a time my family moved house when I was about eight – to a cottage in the Scottish Highlands, without heating or electricity. In this new place after dark, every sensation felt impressively novel, something that (much later) I wanted to paint. I didn’t want to illustrate this as a sort of anecdote; exploring the idea through drawings, I focused on the idea of moonlight in an unfurnished room. I collaborated fruitfully with the person modelling, who brought her own experiences and ideas to the painting. Though quite different now to the initial moving house narrative, the painting is still about sensory heightening and the suspension of ordinary life.
‘What makes it real for me is when the sentiment underlying the painting and my ideas for expressing it come together – along with the volatile in-the-moment kind of painting that comes from studio sessions with a model; this is where all the exciting and unforeseeable things happen.’