When I give Jamie Preisz a call in the lead-up to his exhibition Hold On, the unmistakeable groan of bus engines and exhaust fumes drown out his greeting.
Expecting him to be madly piecing together the finishing touches on his works, Jamie is instead spending the day on the side of a main road, painting a mural of Lil’ Peep on the side of Sydney’s born-again live music venue, The Lansdowne.
But he’s got time to chat, which we do, about the series of portraits he’s been working on since he won the renowned Packing Room Prize (a kind of audience’s choice awarded to just one entrant in Australia’s most prestigious portrait competition) in the first half of the year, with his painting of Aussie musician Jimmy Barnes. But a year that’s seen him reach a career high point that most artists never will, has also seen him faced with the tragic loss of his sister.
But in the wake of dealing with the monumental grief that comes with losing a loved one, came a reminder that there were countless friends and mentors around to help keep him afloat. While the series of works Jamie has created in the time since her passing originally began as an alternative take on portraiture, it would evolve into what Jamie describes as “a love letter to the people who spoke honestly or deeply to me while I tried to deal with the grief of losing my sister.”
13 pairs of hands who, in some way, enabled him to channel his pain into a collection of bold, colourful depictions of vivid paint drips and clasping hands, which will be on show tonight at Jerico Contemporary in Woolloomooloo, Sydney. Jamie let us in on some of the stories behind his favourite pieces, freeing himself with technique and solving puzzles, below.
Congratulations on the new series! How long has is taken you to get this whole body of work together?
Probably about four months, pretty much since the Archibald. It’s the most painting I’ve done in a short space of time.
Do you think that winning the Packing Room Prize has had any particular effect on your art practice since?
I guess so, it’s kind of impossible for it not to. I think it made me almost react against it though, because I love doing portraits and that’s what I guess I’m known for, and then suddenly, there’s this prize that’s like, ‘Good portrait, guy!’ And I’m like fuck, I wanna do a show but I don’t want to do portraits. So in a lot of ways, this was my version of portraits—painting the hands.
And how many portraits did you end up doing?
I did 13. I really put myself in the position that I forced myself to work. I said that I would do eight, then did 12, and ended up doing 13.
And everyone who you selected to paint were people who had helped you out when you were grieving the loss of your sister?
I wish I could paint everybody who did that, but that would be impossible. But, some of them were really close friends I was calling every day, and some of them were just a conversation somewhere out. In a weird way, it feels like a bit of a perspective on that grief; that you don’t have to be all in, you can just have a nice conversation with someone. There’s a spectrum of how to support people, and a kind word can mean as much as calling someone every day or making them food or whatever.
I think that’s a really important thing for people to hear, because it’s hard for a lot of people to know how to act towards someone they care about during those times. It must have been quite cathartic to be able to channel your grief into something tangible like this collection of works?
Yeah, I think so. Something just as simple as having goal posts to work towards. Even if you don’t hit them, as long as you’ve got them. Maybe that ties back into me committing to doing so many paintings for this show, that I really wanted to have something to do and I really wanted to put the hours into doing it, because there’s enough hours that you have all these other things on your mind. So if you’ve got some time set aside to really think about how you’re going to paint something… this series, to me, is just a series of small problems, like playing a computer game or something like that. You face all these little problems and at the end of the day, have something that you’re proud of. That can be really helpful as well, to have something that you’re proud of.
And you mentioned that this body of work is a little less reserved than what you’ve done previously. Did you also mean that in a technical sense?
Definitely. I look up to a lot of the Renaissance painters and their techniques, but for this series, even though it’s still technical, I’m appreciating being able to see a brush stroke, or doing things… not rougher, but a little bit more free in a way, not so laboured.
Is there one work, in particular, that really resonates with you, technical or otherwise?
I think on an aesthetic level, the smiling cat painting. That’s Brett from Winston Surfshirt, and I loved that one for the technical side of it, and I loved painting the chrome. I think next series I’ll be doing some interesting stuff with chrome.
And probably Joji, the guitarist from Gang of Youths, he’s holding this skull that belonged to my sister. And I don’t know, it felt like she was really part of the show in that one. It’s funny because he and I… he’s one of those people where we just had a conversation, and we’re kind of new friends, but that was nice. And also, she loved Gang of Youths, so that’s cool too.
Another one is Jake Terrey, who’s a photographer for Vogue. It’s hard being a photographer, especially a fashion photographer, because he’s an artist in his own right and he has to use his creativity in his day-to-day job. Whereas I get to bring it out whenever I want to, but he’s got to have it on all the time.
Originally we were going to have him holding some of his favourite photos, then he came into the studio and he was in a bit of a grumpy mood. He was like, “I brought all these photos but I don’t know which one, I don’t really like any of them.” So I was like, “Just rip them up and make a little collage.” And then he had this big smile on his face and was ripping up all these beautiful fashion photos, was sticking them back together with duct tape and glueing stuff down, scrunching it up. Then he’s holding this scrunched up photo of his work, but it’s all kind of ripped apart, and I liked that for someone whose work is so serious and has to be so formal. It was funny to see him getting so into ripping stuff apart and putting it all back together. He turned into a little kid.