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The symbolism of the docks: James Pasakos’s depictions of Docklands

31 Jan 2019

The symbolism of the docks: James Pasakos’s depictions of Docklands Image

By Meg Hill

James Pasakos grew up in Docklands before you could really grow up in Docklands, at least in the way kids grow up here today.

James lived in South Melbourne, but both his parents worked in areas peripheral to Docklands. It was the 70s and mid-80s, and the area’s workforce was markedly different.

“My parents both worked in the factories. My mum worked at the Holden factory,” James said.

James was in Docklands and surrounds most afternoons with his parents. Often his dad would also take him to the back areas of Port Melbourne and the docks to go fishing.

So James’s childhood came largely to be defined by Docklands before the area was residential at all. In fact, his parents were post-war Greek migrants who found their way to Melbourne on a ship that docked in the area.

“I was observing the industrial maritime areas. They’re my childhood memories growing up in that period.”

He built his art career out of those humble origins. At exhibitions, snappy artist bios often describe his art as inspired by his childhood in Docklands. The statement wouldn't quite fit the canvas for anyone who’s visited recently but is unacquainted with the area’s history.

“I see the cranes and the shipping, that industry, as almost my iconism. It’s sort of my beauty, it’s where I grew up.”

His depiction of ships, docks, bridges and water are also about processes of human movement, immigration, cultural interactions and belonging. The Greek community may now have a relatively stable place in the Australian social landscape, but there was a process in getting there.

James mostly makes prints. The prints set in Docklands and surrounds are dark, even haunting. They contrast or connect ­– depending on your disposition – the might of industry and the might of the sea.

“I think a lot of the times when I used to go down to the docks was during the winter. I like that whole area when there’s a lot of fog or mist. I love the colours, the earthy greens and the reds, the dark greys and blues.”

James notes that he was into German expressionists when he was at university. He loved their “dark works” and how they “ask the viewer to look a bit deeper into it”.

Australian artists with influence include Rick Amor and Jeffrey Smart, who also make “mysterious works”.

“I’m not just painting an urban scene, I’m trying to create almost a myth. It’s almost like a narrative that I’m trying to create. It’s not just a representation of a landscape, but [to] create some sort of narrative or myth about it.”

It’s tempting, in a sense, to connect James’s work as a printmaking artist with that of his working class parents. James uses his hands, assisted by a number of tools and machinery, to make his art.

But much of the time James is making monotypes, which are one-offs. Hands and tools in factory lines produce countless replicas of the same item.

“I paint on a surface, on a plate – Perspex, metal or plastic – using rollers, or paintbrushes, or cotton wool buds, and getting effects from that plate.”

“Then I put it through an etching press and put a piece of paper over the top – high end quality paper. It goes through the press and comes out the other side with ink or paint off the surface transferred onto the paper.”

“Lift off the paper and you’ve got an image.”

An example of a “one-off” is Run Aground, currently featured in the Marvellous Melbourne exhibition.

“I see the Docklands for me as losing a bit of its identity,” James said.

“I’m not against progress but I still feel that Docklands has run aground a bit, lost itself a bit.”

Run Aground is a bit of an anomaly within his titles – many of his prints are titled simply: Docked, Boat II, Untitled.

He lives in Ballarat now, where he lectures in fine arts at Federation University, but comes back to Docklands regularly.

James said he found Ballarat both beautiful and different. Far from the coast and with little in the way of industrial working class history, he’s still drawn back to Docklands.

If his parents were the process of arriving, James is the process of leaving.

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