Todd James (aka REAS) found his onset with art within the New York City subway system – and since still remains one of graffiti’s most respected icons to this day. While many would expect a shock in transition from the streets into a gallery space, the artist has continued to stay authentic to the genesis of his creative endeavours.
James seeks to break the distance between an imposed ignorance and an innate curiosity in all audiences “I think people take away things from art the creator never intended” – he tells me, and whether he is actively aware of it or not, his paintings are impossibly intriguing. Though eccentric in colour on the surface, they exert narratives of a social-political nature that often lead to a divergence in any original interpretation. Each work prompts a retake in every instance.
In his latest venture, REAS moves into London’s Lazarides Rathbone to present a vivid body of hyper-coloured works titled “Fantasy Island” – a nod to the 70’s television show of the same name. Alongside the main gallery exhibition, James has also transformed a vintage Chevrolet van positioned outside the gallery doors, expanding on childhood references first curated in his Vandal’s Bedroom.
From the gallery: “The large-scale paintings depict a fantastical reality far removed from the safety of Western existence, seducing the viewer with a seamless mix of luminous compositions and graffiti-infused erotica. The satirical showcase features a striking cast of modern-day Somali pirates, UN soldiers and scantily-clad females, adorned with AK47s and over-sized sunglasses whilst basking against tropical backdrops of never-ending sunsets. James illuminates contradictions in our contemporary landscape with playful scenes loaded in metaphor; armed soldiers balancing cups of tea in armchairs and sexualised women brandishing heavy weaponry. The duality of the work is key to the American artist’s long-term practice, carefully balancing stylised animations against the stark reality of the times we live in.”
Todd James met with Arts Editor Luciana for a brief conversation about the new series of work and an insight to why themes of fantasy are so important to sending messages.
Todd, it’s great to have you on After Nyne.
L: Your work combines elements of both abstract art and surrealism, why do you feel it’s important for you do have both of these in your art?
TD: I actually never thought of it like that. I just make what I find interesting and make little pushes in different directions. There’s no ingredients I absolutely need.
Is there any significance in the recurring image of a “warrior princess” character in your work?
I grew up when swords and sorcery was big in youth culture. You’d see it on record covers and there were movies like Ralph Bakshi’s “Wizards “ and ” Lord of the Rings” animated feature was out. Those cartoons were very underground and offered up something more real than what was coming out of Disney. Heavy Metal Magazine and Conan books as well as the game Dungeons and Dragons were big. So making these are sort of looking back and having a second childhood. I’m ordering Conan novels and Wizard hats off of E-bay but I draw the line at replica swords. I’ll have none of that.
Tell us a little about the inspiration behind the new body of work in “Fantasy Island” opening at Lazarides next week
It’s about adventure and escape and I used to love the TV show “Fantasy Island” in the 70s where Mr Roarke made everyones dreams come true.
Do you always approach a body of work with a brief or concept to work from?
No, it sort of forms on its own. A “brief or concept”? that reminds me of a bit from Noel Fielding’s luxury comedy which I love.
Your work has often been described as treading a fine line between the profane and the humorous but I’ve often seen both as subjective. How often do you feel as if your work has been misunderstood?
I think theres some humor in everything and as far as being understood I think people take away things from art the creator never intended. Sometimes it’s best not to know the exact lyrics to a song.
Can you recall an image within the new “Fantasy Island” series that stands out to you as a favourite or has given you the most satisfaction personally and creatively?
There are a few that I like but for different reasons. I like the painting of Rammellzee, for me his art was very much about fantasy and escape with his costumes and armored letters and the whole world he created with his work. I used to see him often in a deli near where he lived and he’d be dressed in his full regalia doorag, crazy sunglasses and some kind of kungfu pants and boots. He looked like he stepped out of a comic book of his own making its who he was.
What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?
Right now I’m fascinated by fantasy so it’s seeped in in different small ways.
Todd James’ solo exhibition Fantasy Island opens at Lazarides from 1st May – 28th May 2015
11 Rathbone Place