On and off the street: James MacSporran talks about his ever-developing art practice

Watch, listen or read this enlightening conversation with Arts Project Australia artist James MacSporran discussing the influence of Melbourne street art on his style and the ever-developing nature of his practice while also reflecting on his current solo exhibition.

James MacSporran is an emerging artist working primarily in painting and drawing on paper and canvas. Stylistically, his art practice embodies a blend of abstraction and graffiti, which result in colourful artworks emerging from his imagination. His work often synthesises text and abstraction, conjures references to mazes, street art, and old-style arcade games. MacSporran has been featured in group exhibitions in Australia and Hong Kong. His solo 4 x 4 Artist Solos – where he exhibits alongside Monica Lazarri, Samraing Chea and Rebecca Scibilia – displays a series of canvas works arranged against a mural created on the gallery wall.

4 x 4 is currently available as a virtual exhibition online, and of course, in the gallery once restriction lift in Melbourne (this Friday 18 July) with extended dates until Sunday 4 July 2021. 

read James MacSporran conversation transcript* below

James MacSporran stands in front of his colourful wall mural and artwork on canvas

Tahney: The first thing I wanted to ask you is about the mural you created in the gallery over three days – of which we’ve got a time-lapse on APA’s Instagram. Last year, you did a similar public installation in South Yarra on Chapel Street. How do you approach this work compared to something on canvas? You have more to-and-fro for a public installation. How do you envision the final piece, and what is it like to fully immerse yourself for a couple of days? 

James MacSporran: Sometimes I’ve got three days, sometimes I have a week. The three days worked well because, unlike what I did in Chapel Street, there weren’t many constraints like pedestrians manoeuvring around me. I had done another mural once in Merri Creek, and that had a strict time as well. 

When I come up with a design, it’s generally something I’ve tried or done before that I follow or, if I find another technique, I’ll use it. So, for example, I like working in sections of layers like the recent one or the [Chapel Street] mural where someone had laid down a previous colour, so I worked with that colour in the background using predominantly purple colours that went well. 

As far design, every now and then, I might look at something and think, “Well, that doesn’t go with that,” and I’ll try maybe try something else. Generally, it’s sometimes hit and miss. Sometimes, I know exactly where I’m going, so it was good to experiment with the two recent ones. The first one was sort of more of that. It was a graphscape, which is like a landscape. The main difference with this one [at the gallery] is I’ve stepped away from the landscape part and mainly concentrated on the graph.  

Tahney: As you’re creating a mural, do you feel a rhythm and ease, or is it an experimentation, more like jig-sawing and trying to work out the end result? 

James MacSporran: It makes me feel pleased to have been able to do it. It was good doing Chapel Street, but this one [at the gallery] was right near the shop where I like to go and close to the Arts Project studio. 

When I was at Chapel Street, there was all sort of people walking past and chatting. When I was at the gallery, people stopped to look at the work and say different things about it. They liked it, or some people might say, “Oh, that’s not my kind of style.” But there were many positive outcomes, so that was good because you’re never sure. Some people were making comments, and I realized they were saying something nice.

What was so good about the three murals was that there was always interaction. The one in the park, which is the one near Merri Creek station, was altogether a different experience because that a lot of people were saying, “Well, I only got off the train to look at that.” Which made me pleased because they were saying if it wasn’t there, that probably wouldn’t have been drawn to the park. 

Tahney: Melbourne has a rich history and culture in the contemporary landscape in terms of public art and graffiti. You’re a Melbourne local. Growing up in Melbourne, what were your first encounters with street art, and, along the way in your art practice, who have met in that subculture of the art scene?

James MacSporran: I have always been interested in it. I started with a lot of films; there was Beat Street and Body Rock, which was hard to get a hold of, that did inspire me. Then, sometime later down the track, I went to three exhibitions called Adrenaline, which were all big graffiti exhibitions. I enjoyed going, and I got to meet pretty much all the artists. I found out why they decided to start painting canvas because many other artists would say, “Well, no, you don’t paint a canvas because it’s not street or anything,” but they had obviously decided their art had a unique style. 

When I was going to Huntingdale Technical School, I met an artist who calls himself Murda, for whatever reason, and I was always asking questions. He was doing, a bit like me, more prototype graffiti where he’d had a background and then put an animation celllike on top, which produced a whole new kind of artwork. 

I had a great experience with Youth Affairs Council Victoria (VAYC) that really got me involved. I remember we had a trip away, and I was wondering where we were going. Someone said we have to bring these boards, so we packed up about 20 or 30 boards and took them to this nice park, and we were all spray painting designs on boards. They had it up at a big display, and it got windy, and it was blowing everything everywhere, and it just got to be really fun. They put three or four boxes of spray paint, and it was just people having a bit of fun. 

VAYC was good value and helped me a lot. I thought I was a bit older to be doing graffiti because most of these guys were really young, and I was already cracking on to 30. But at VAYC, I was really getting to know these guys, and I asked them why they were ‘riding,’ and I think the VAYC helped them because they were getting commissions. They had mural sites they were painting, and they were really busy doing their own style of artwork. A lot of them were getting ready for Adrenaline. It was nice to see a lot of the work around the public work sites. I think VAYC may or may not exist anymore, but this was between the 80s and 90s when I first started out. 

Around this time, I got onto my first job, which is screen printing which is really good other than the fact it really smelled really bad because of what they used to use in the ink. That helped me with my artwork because for a while that I almost completely stopped. Because I was working, I was able to afford a lot of the paints. Other than that, I just kept going. I’d buy some canvas and generally just do that. It was good to keep busy and make sure I was able to get some work. 

Tahney: You have a really rich history in abstract art, especially canvas works, but I’ve noticed you have a more figurative practice as well. There are two portraits currently online where there’s a bit of a washy yellow background embodying Pikachu and a man in a hat. 

James MacSporran: That came back because I started doing some zoom sessions, and suddenly there was all this other inspiration and other books that I liked reading that have been a big help. They give me a bit of inspiration for some designs as well. 

I’ve bought up quite a few [books] recently, which is on my internet, oh well, actually, it was probably to do with an artist called skype he does this unique style a bit like me, and that helped as well because he did a lot of figurative rework which is good, so that was a lot of fun to try that.

Tahney: That’s interesting because this show was initially scheduled for early last year, and these pieces on display now were originally part of that show. When you look at these works from over 12 months ago, how do you think your practice has evolved, especially over lockdown, as you were saying?

James MacSporran: It will keep evolving. I look at some of the work in the exhibition, and what I’m doing now doesn’t look too different. For the exhibition piece with the building, I’ve got a few designs to look similar, but again it was just the shape and the style of just having a go with something. The one above that other train one was more prototype than anything. It was just saying, “Well, this is what this colour looks like,” or seeing how well it all goes together. I’ll just keep changing and evolving. Every time I was doing all the sessions, I kept on trying something, and I thought, well, that looks okay, so I’ll do that. I did a bit more figurative work; some looks very unlike what I’ve done before. 

I can’t wait for people to see it all. There’s quite a bit there. I almost loaded my car with all the work to bring in. Still, I think that would be the bigger difference because again, looking at what I’ve done there, I’ve got a few works that look similar. Still, again I don’t want to keep anything too similar. I want to keep it in a particular kind of style, so that’s why if you see in the big mural, it’s got what looks like flashes of colour; that was a technique I’d only just found out because I was just trying something else or something new. So it’s just worth it to give it a try and see how it goes definitely.

Tahney: I love the expansiveness of your work. Obviously, there are a few things that tie them all together, especially in terms of colour, but the great thing is that your work knows no boundaries as you try different approaches. I guess that’s the wonderful thing about this installation is that you’re able to blend the new, which is this mural, with the older works. So, James, I think it’s a time for today. Hopefully, everyone will come and see this solo in the flesh soon.  

James MacSporran: I was pleased that quite a few of my works are doing well. I recently rediscovered a work I did a while ago, which I took it home and did a bit of work more to it and I’ve since found out that it’s now online [for sale in the stockroom], which made me feel really pleased. If I don’t do something with it, it may not go anywhere, so I did a few other colours and changed it slightly. It looks like a dragon with lettering joined. It was done in 2020. I improved it a bit. It’s always nice to go back to something and add something to it to change it up. 

*Edited for length and clarity.

Love from the Studio is a series of interviews and articles bringing you behind the scenes of Arts Project Australia. James MacSporran was interviewed by Arts Project Australia’s communications co-ordinator Tahney Fosdike. Images by Janelle Low.