James de Villiers

Born 10 March 1954

Pietermaritzburg, Kwazulu-Natal. 

Currently lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa.


James de Villiers has been active as an artist, since about the age of 19 and has followed a path of continual exploration, experimentation and self-education.


Over the past ten years or so his painting style has undergone several radical changes although the expressionistic style is one he had in the 1980s. He has been influenced mainly by the Dutch, German and Flemish masters and has produced a large body of realist works which include landscape, still life, portraits and skyscapes. A small part of his output in the 1990s includes paintings based on South African history, namely the Anglo Boer War and the Zulu War. He works between realism and expressionism, emphasising the particular style when the need demands it.


De Villiers work is concerned with change, decay, destruction and the passage of time. It also specifically deals with the vulnerability and recovery of nature. At present his paintings, though stylistically different from much of the past works, still derive from the same themes. He has found that he prefers nowadays to be more energetic and spontaneous. He also experimented with using pastels, a medium whose unique qualities he only discovered later in his artistic career. So from about 2010 onwards, pastels feature prominently along with powdered pigment and layering with varnish. He also started using acrylics for abstract work as well. De Villiers is presently working simultaneously in both abstract and realist modes, moving from one mode to the other keeps his attention focused and his vision fresh. Each mode or style of art making enables him to express himself in the most appropriate way the vision demands.


A large part of his present work comes directly from the simultaneous study of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” and working in the garden. He was studying the painting and found the original plans for the actual raft online and built a scale model. James was fascinated by the grid, the way a grid was used as a life support mechanism and what that raft can represent conceptually. It led him to think of birds’ nests and at the same time, he happened to be doing a lot of trimming in the garden, ending up with piles of twigs, leaves and branches.


The chaotic grid patterns that the branches formed, the idea of man shaping nature to conform to aesthetic ideas, the wastage and the whole question of ecology soon began to inform his art making. The grids are also a reminder of maps and the chaos of the layering of history on the landscape through wars and disasters. His study of World War 1 trench maps and comparisons with present-day terrain is used extensively in a number of interpretive works.


Another great influence and inspiration have been the recent studies in particle physics and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. His art encompasses the very large and very small elements of nature.


His other influences include William Blake, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Christian Boltanski, Marc Rothko, Brice Marden, Turner, Constable and many others.


De Villiers main themes are derived from a study of military, art and social history, an interest in archaeology, science, ecology and music.

I have only had two Muses. The first one was, and in a way remains, the concept of the Hindu deity, Kali. 
Since my teenage years living next to an Indian community I have been interested in Hindu cosmology and philosophy. Kali embodies the ideas of creation and destruction, chaos, regeneration and mad energy. As the conceptual framework of my painting matured, that whole philosophical idea simplified itself into Nature. Nature encompasses all of the Kali concepts anyway.  I could easily say I have more than one Muse, several in fact. But it all points to one Muse: Nature in all it’s manifestations. The inner and outward signs of energy, the gross and the subtle, the mundane, the sublime, the hidden forces that move the air, the clouds and the sea. The life force that flows through every
sub-atomic particle that comprises the universe as we understand it. The vibrations and oscillations used for communication. The destructive forces, negative and positive and the generation and decay.

From man-made machines such as the Large Hadron Collider that allow us to detect, visualise and measure the smallest conceivable parts of matter to the telescopes like the Hubble observing the collisions of galaxies; these are the fascinations that entice the disciplines, expressive and intellectual, to understand and interpret the world around us. The efforts of humanity to chart and map these forces and vectors and the conflicts and understandings that arise from this. The artists and visionaries, philosophers, physicists, engineers, mathematicians, astronomers and numerous other fields all play a part in unveiling the secrets behind the forces which influence every aspect of our lives.

In my art I wish to express and visualise a small part of that quest and share with the viewer the overpowering sense of the awesome and the seemingly chaotically complex universe in which we exist; through abstraction which allows us a sense of being able to hopefully express a normally inexpressible spirituality, and realism which allows us to grasp the essence of physical magnitude and often times the terrifying chaos of beauty.

© 2020 by James de Villiers.