London based artist Nathan James uses different approaches each time he has a new idea to develop. This “lack” of a signature style makes his art unpredictable, but he might be converging into one thing. Nathan James will soon make his US solo debut at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles with “Dark Matter”, featuring his “Creepshow” series that we featured here on our blog, and introducing a new series that he calls “Faceless”. In most of his works, all the characters have no face, as if they were not connected with anything, only with their inside. It’s a contrast to a world that is connected 24/7, but the people are only connected to themselves, as he explains: “There’s nothing for the viewer to connect with, latch onto and gain a foothold. It’s as if the blinds are drawn; we’ve lost our peep-hole and can only guess at what’s going on inside by the turmoil being expressed on the surface.” We sat down with him to talk more about the inspiration behind his upcoming show.
HF: Why did you move to London initially? Do you find that where you live or work affects the style of work you create?
NJ: I just wanted to get out of Toronto. I grew up not far from there, went to school there and after living there for 8 years I needed a change. My father is American and originally I was considering moving to LA but due to some technicalities I wasn’t able to get a green card. The UK had a visa for Canadians so I thought I’d check it out. Not too long after, I met my wife here and decided to stay. I don’t know if anything about Canada specifically inspired my work. My cohorts were all figurative painters but I think that was my inclination anyway.
HF: You sometimes associate your work with “Pessimist Pop”- what does this term mean to you? Why do you associate your work with pessimism?
NJ: My idea for this work came about when I wanted to connect with some negative experiences and twist them around in order make some darkly cheery paintings. I wanted to take some of the worst things in life — death, parental abandonment, unemployment, violence, drug abuse, bullying etc. — and pair them with more conventional pop iconography in order to subvert both elements and create a visual tension.
I once read a thing from the liner notes of the Ramones album, Rocket To Russia. The author wrote that the genius of the band was, with songs like “Rockaway Beach”, their ability to make celebratory pop anthems by inverting rotten, nasty elements from their lives that were actually quite horrible in reality. With those paintings I’m trying to explore just that.
HF: Tell me about your artistic influences- do you draw inspiration from specific painters or non-art related sources?
NJ: I love painters: Nigel Cooke, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Charlie Roberts, Genieve Figgis, Mark Ryden. Old magazines and advertisements, typography, folk art, comics, 60s underground comics especially.
HF: In what ways does the internet influence you? Has becoming a father recently had any impact on your work?
NJ: I used to take a traditional approach to the subject or sitter and place them within an environment in order to create a tension between the figure and the ground. Up to about 2012 these were primarily synthetic horizons; primary, brash, hard edge, and graphical. I was in art college right when the the internet was beginning to become ubiquitous and that obviously found its way into my work.
Since my last big show, “Creepshow”, I’ve had a child and this whole experience may be why I’ve been more focused on the corporal. This new work is fleshy, messy with more of an emphasis on physicality and the body. This has inverted how I used to express the psychological state of the sitter, being that instead of it being represented as an outside force pushing in, it’s now been turned inward, on itself. All of the action is contained within the sitter.
HF: Developing a signature style is so often encouraged in the curriculum that is teaching young artists, yet you are an artist who has found success working in different styles. Please explain why you choose to portray one subject in a particular style over another.
NJ: In terms of the traditional gallery-artist paradigm I think that not having one distinct or signature style has hasn’t been the best move career-wise because some people I’ve worked with found it too unpredictable. Often I don’t do it on purpose. It’s more that I’ll have an idea that requires a different approach and I’ll have to develop something new for myself to achieve it.
I like problem solving and working things out. I’m always learning and finding new ways to love and understand the medium. It’s starting to feel like they’re all converging into one thing and that’s exciting too. To me my work always has a specific look to it and perhaps that’ll become even more distinctive.
HF: Also, why portraits?
NJ: What I’ve always loved about painting is its ability to capture the human experience at any given moment of time and communicate it down the ages in an immediate, seemingly tactile way. I’m a figurative painter and in order to make sense of my little window on the world my work has always dealt with people, usually individuals or couples, so primarily portraiture.
HF: What advice would you give to yourself as a young artist 10 years ago? Anything else that you would like to share?
NJ: If I could go back 10 years and give myself some advice when I first moved here, it would be to stop spending all the money I saved up in Canada on partying… although, it was a fun 3 months. As an artist, it would be to stop cold calling galleries, be patient, and paint. I’ve been working on this solo show at Corey Helford Gallery in LA in February since last spring. I’m super excited about getting all that together and then I’ll start thinking about the future.
Nathan James’ “Dark Matter” will debut at Corey Helford Gallery’s Gallery 3 space in Los Angeles on February 20th, 2016.