One of James Unsworth’s abiding memories is getting into trouble at school for drawing in his books. You wonder how many would-be artists have been discouraged in this way.
It didn’t knock James off track. He went on to do an art foundation course in his home city of Liverpool before furthering his studies at Winchester School of Art.
You can see his latest exhibition, including new and experimental work, at Newcastle Arts Centre, Westgate Road, which is where I meet him.
Reflecting on his classrom ‘crime’, he says: “I was slightly insular as a child and I think there’s a sense of safety in an imagined world that you can create and control yourself.”
He enjoyed drawing and comics, both forms of escapism. Comics provided much of his early inspiration.
For a lad growing up in Liverpool, football was also a factor. A fan of the city’s team in red, he wasn’t averse to a kickabout.
After telling me he failed the first year of his art foundation course, he explains he had got into playing football and ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, thereby knackering his knee.
“It ended my football career at the age of 19.”
But football’s loss was art’s gain.
Having got through the foundation course, James had offers to further his studies in Newcastle and Winchester. He chose the latter because he reckoned it was “the opposite of Liverpool” while Newcastle, football-obsessed party city with lots of students, probably was not.
“Winchester was amazing,” he says. “They just let us swan around like we were already established artists and they gave us one project at the beginning and left us to it.”
James fell in love with printing. “I liked the technical process and the idea of learning a skill. Also, I liked the fact that it narrows the parameters of what is possible and you’re working within them to make something new and interesting.”
Google James Unsworth and you will see he has embraced some pretty gruesome subjects.
Some of his films and drawings would not be deemed suitable for family viewing and would appear to feed off the material you might find in the darkest recesses of a comic shop.
In another interview, he explained this material by saying: “Real life horror is what terrifies and repulses me. The images I make are perhaps a way of insulating myself from a world that contains real horror.”
The Newcastle exhibition contains surprises but no horrors.
It comes after a 10-day spell at the experimental studios at Commercial Union House, Pilgrim Street, run by Vane and Breeze Creatives (highly proactive Newcastle-based art organisations).
The biggest surprise lies in the materials – not expensive oil paints, porcelain or bronze but the kind of stuff you might find at a DIY wholesaler’s: OSB board (compressed wood strands and glue), Fablon and chip foam.
James cheerfully reveals that the garish pebble-dash featured in some of his wall-mounted pieces is actually coloured aquarium gravel.
“The way I see these materials is that they’re kind of tragic ,” he says.
“In a way, they’re aspirational, trying to be something that they’re not, and there’s some sort of human quality there.
“What is beautiful? I think there’s something interesting in the transformation we see going on here.”
In most cases the materials used are not even thinly disguised. Here they are, though, in an art gallery and the results are not offensive to the eye.
The more I look at a series of nine wall-mounted wood-effect collages, the more I like them. The materials used may be humble but the work that went into them was prodigious and the results dance intriguingly before your eyes.
The artist is inviting us to consider why some materials are artistically acceptable while others are not.
But at the same time, according to his statement on the leaflet I picked up in the gallery, he is bemoaning the ‘death of print’ as it loses its high tech status and becomes the means to spew out junk mail.
At one end of the gallery is a large screenprint called Memorial. Actually it’s three screenprints displayed together, each showing a grey slab in the shape of a flight of steps with a word cut through it: “Dead.”
Sportingly, James agrees to be photographed lying in front of it but you can tell it makes him uneasy. The screenprint shows the gravestone of celebrated painter and printmaker Patrick Caulfield in London’s Highgate Cemetery.
“One of the reasons I got into print was because of Patrick Caulfield. The guy still is a hero to me,” says James.
“I think his was the first proper art I’d seen that reminded me of the comic books I’d read. It was the flat pristineness of the colour.
“That’s why I love screenprinting because it’s the way to get that flat colour.”
James was relieved to hear Pauline Caulfield, Patrick’s widow, liked his gravestone print.
A meeting was arranged and he planned to give her a print.
Last week James tweeted: “Had an amazing morning chatting to Pauline Caulfield, drinking tea and seeing some unexhibited Patrick Caulfield work.”
Caulfield died in 2005, aged 69. Now younger artists like James Unsworth are keeping the memory alive with exhibitions like this.