Thursday, October 14, 2010


There's nothing like the suprise joy of bumping into a old friend in a foreign city. So you can imagine my delight while exploring London's East end to find myself face to face with a large piece of street art by Adelaide's own James Cochran. The 2.5 Meter high image of a bearded pilgrim was depicted with thousands of layered dripping aerosol dots that is Cochrans unmistakable style. Like much of Bricklane's street art the image is the constant target of the camera phones that quickly snap up whatever's new from London's greatest underground tourist attraction.

It's funny to think that James Cochran, or Jimmy C as he has been known, was once one of Adelaide's most notorious graffiti writers. With a pseudonym (not to be mentioned) high on the list of SA police's graffiti task force during the 1980s Cochran gave up graffiti for the studio and the world of fine art. Since then his style of aerosol based pointillism has gained recognition from Melbourne to Paris for its amalgamation of French impressionism with Aboriginal dot painting. To my knowledge he hadn't painted anything on the streets for a long time so I was excited to track him down to find out why now, why London and why he gave it up all those years ago.

After bumping into James as an opening we meet over coffee at an East end bar. "The Graffiti world was like a second family" explained Cochran who was kicked out of home at 16 "but it just wasn't sustainable as a way of life." It was this belief that led Cochran to art school only to discover that in the postmodern era where 'painting is dead' he was going to have to teach himself. So by day James Cochran was taught how to think about art and by night Jimmy C went out and made art on the street. It wasn't until Cochran visited Europe in 1995 that he discovered the old masters and found within himself a respect that was lacking in what he'd been taught.

Ask Cochran about Caravagio and he'll display a warmth and excitement that's totally unbecoming of a contemporary artist. In fact, James' whole personality is far too open. Rather than obscuring his intentions in convoluted art speak Cochran is all the more enigmatic for the exuberance with which he races through his ideas. It's easy to understand why such a character finished study only to turn to rural based art projects such as mural painting in remote aboriginal communities. It was through collaborating with local aboriginal artists that Cochran developed his drip painting technique that he was then able to combine with his knowledge of the Western tradition of painting. But after 10 years of community projects Cochran gave in to the pull of the studio and exhibiting paintings. Within 2 years his work would be exhibited at the Point Ephemere in Paris.

In the years since Cochran turned his back on his former life, the world of graffiti has developed a social conscience and reemerged more powerful than ever in the form of street art. It's that sense of social consciousness that's attracted Cochran back. "It's always been present in my work from when i was doing community projects until recently but i did feel an expectation to play that element down within the world of contemporary fine art" he explains. This willingness to engage with the world around it offers some explanation for why street art has found such a widespread appeal. But that's not the only reason why artists find street art so appealing. While the world of contemporary art becomes ever more stratified as institutions and curators tighten their hold, more and more artists are turning to street art as a means of circumventing the establishment.

But for Cochran the initial reasons seem more personal. "I came to London just to shake things up a bit in my art practice" he explains "but I found things just weren't feeling right in the studio." Given this it doesn't seem surprising that the ex-graffiti writer should take a break from the static world of contemporary art in favor of the fluidity of the street. In the weeks following its completion, images of Cochrans work will be viewed by thousands, photographed, uploaded, passed around, commented on, discussed, and (perhaps best of all) responded to with yet more street art. "It's a way of giving something to the place that you're in" says Cochran.

You might be asking 'why then should London be so lucky?' Well, there's no real mystery to that question. There's a long history of Australian artists needing to gain recognition overseas before we feel secure in honoring them back home. However, in Cochran's case, London is about reaching a wider audience. In his words "what happens on the island stays on the island." It's a fact that only really means that Australian artists need to try a little harder if they want to get onto the world stage. Often 'trying a little harder' translates to 'extended international travel.' But just as often Australian artists who take a piece of homegrown culture abroad also manage to smuggle something back on their return. I'm expecting Cochran to be one of the latter.