Painting

It Just Does: A Conversation with Todd "REAS" James

February 28, 2018

Readers of Juxtapoz are surely familiar of the works of NYC-born Todd James. Whether you know him as REAS and a graffiti originator, or from creative direction at Crank Yankers, or just his range of loose and compelling paintings, James is a rare figure in the contemporary art world with a persona and position in so many different places. Just in our universe, he has been a two-time cover artist, in countless features, a member of our Juxtapoz x Superflat museum show and a recent contributor to our ongoing series of charity events around surfboard art. This Winter, Todd returned to Copenhagen for a new solo show, Interior, held at his longtime gallery, V1's satellite space, Eighteen Gallery. There, our correspondent, Sasha Bogojev caught up with Todd in a wide-ranging conversation about creative happiness, his ever-changing output and the next phase. And from February 22—April 27, 2018, Todd has a new solo show, Love To Love You, on view at his longtime Madrid gallery, Javier Lopez & Fer Frances. 

Sasha Bogojev: How did this recent interior body of work develop? Where is it coming from?
Todd James: I guess I started making more detailed interiors behind just regular things that I was drawing and then sort of made the interiors the focus of it. I also like book shelves and stuff like that.

Do you use any reference photographs or where do you get the inspiration?
Every once in a while there will be a part of something that I see. Either if I'm at some place or I see a picture, so yeah, a little bit of reference. Actually, in one of the paintings there is a painting that my wife bought on eBay. It's a simplified version, not exactly it, but it's definitely based of it.

You seem to be simplifying the imagery so the representational part keeps getting looser and more vague, but it's still figurative work, right?
Yeah.

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How important is it for you to be on that thin line between abstraction and figuration?
I don't know, I don't have like a rule about what it's got to be. I just think and if something feels too empty and needs one or the other, than I need to shift things. I don't know why it feels right, it just does.

How do you plan your work? Can you estimate how much time do you spend working on a mid size canvas for example?
It depends really. Like one of the two biggest ones I did for V1 show took me more than twice as long as the other one.

How far do you move from your initial sketch? I'm assuming you're making sketches for these large canvases first. Also, at which point do you decide on the colors which are obviously a big part of your work?
The pieces on paper are sometimes the sketch for the bigger piece. I make those directly, just straight on paper, and sometimes I just make that bigger. Some canvases are having some parts from these paper works and other parts are just made up, out of my head.

Did you ever make any full on abstract works? Do you have any interest in that?
I kind of have. It's interesting cause I'm more interested in it now.

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Yeah, it seems that way.
Yeah I might make some, but it's not like I'm gonna be an abstract artist. I like to come back to things. Nothing ever gets abandoned. You know what I mean?

So it's not like one of your goals or something?
Nah, it's just. . . stuff happens.

Aside from interiors, pirates, military imagery and women, do you have another theme you're working on or planning on working on?
Well I've done a lot of b-boy faces which kind of references to all the graffiti stuff. So there's that. And I've done that Vandal's Bedroom, or even Street Market, which all references graffiti. But also the theme of cartoons in general. If I'm looking at the last few years, those are kind of the main ones I've been working on.

Speaking of graffiti, a lot of artists that are coming from graffiti background are using spray paint in their work and it seems like you stepped away from it at early stage?
Yeah, but it's not like a wouldn't ever use it. And I did thought about it. I've seen so many people that don't use it which reminds me that it's still there, I just haven't been using it so far. And it's not like it's out of the question or anything.

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Coming from graffiti world and having strong interest in cartoons and fantasy, at which point did the interest for fine art develop? Was it always there?
There is more interest now than then, but I saw things in some people's work when I wasn't even trying to make this kind of things. You know how even people that aren't into it can enjoy art. Like going to museums. Even if it's on periphery, you'll experience it. But now every once in a while I'll see something and go, "WOW."

I'm guessing living in NY must help that. Feels like there is a strong artist community there?
Yeah, but it's weird when it happens. I don't always go out to see stuff. But every once in a while you get caught off guard with something like that. You can just be at somebody's house and open a book you've never seen and you see something like "Oh wow, that's good!"

Yeah, that's what I meant with community that influences each other. Do you feel like there is a healthy competition going, do you feel like you're supported by other artist friends?
I certainly have friends like that. It's weird though, cause you kind of have to work and go out, and I don't go out that much. But it's fun meeting new people and there is a whole world of it out there I guess.

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(from Todd's new show, Love To Love You, on view now in Madrid at Javier Lopez & Fer Frances)

Is there anything in particular that you're noticing or care about in other people's work?
You know, I don't go looking for a specific thing. It's just when I see something and it hits me. It could be something really complicated, or something really simple, but in a way that works for me. Cause everybody can look at the same image but can feel different.

And talking about these recent interior works in particular, how do you feel about people comparing them with Matisse?
I can see how someone would say that, and it's fine, but it's not intentional. If you look at the earlier works I've made, the paper works, everything had like a pencil outline. And then I lost some of the pencil outline, and they became flat forms. So it all started looking more like that. It's just how it happened.

So you weren't influenced by his collages?
If anyone, I feel like I'm more influenced by Peter Saul.

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(Peter Saul)

Have you ever done collages?
Hmmmm, maybe. I don't know. I can't say no, but I don't remember exactly.

Your colors are obviously very important. How many layers do you apply before you've reached the desired intensity?
That all depends on the pigment of the color. For example, for whatever reason the red is just that good. But certain other ones, and I can't even say which ones, will take more layers.

What do you think is the most important part of your work for you? Is there a key element that you need to look or be in certain way?
I can't put my finger on it cause it's different every time. It could be the composition, or something that is just working and it doesn't need any changes.

Do you feel like like you're translating some of your emotions into your work in a way?
Yeah, "mellow." They are quieter. Definitely more than the bombing or the planes.

Are you trying to provoke with your work in a way? With all the titties and buts, guns and such.
Nah, it just is what it is. I don't have like a flag that I'm carrying in the battle.

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(Todd James, 2000s)

You did do more explicit stuff in the past though.
Oh yeah, but it's all usually super cartoony and fun, and these are just mellow.

You keep shifting between drawings, cartoon-like stuff, and paintings, but also, you did all these projects outside art world. Like band and brand logos, puppet designs, cartoon shows, etc. Do you have favorites?
At different times, yeah. Like I did some stuff with Dungeons and Dragons, and I really enjoyed that cause it's something that I really like. It all finds its own time and place.

Looking at your Instagram feed it feels like you're constantly creating something.
For me it's an escape from whatever. It helps me feel ok. I never even thought of it that way, but it's fun to have new ideas, try to figure something out. Like solving a puzzle.

And do you have a favorite from those projects outside art world for whatever reason?
Not from the top of my head cause they're all different. Each of them have some cool things about them.

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(Juxtapoz cover by Todd James, August 2008)

Is there a dream project you'd like to work on at some point?
Yeah, I'd like to make some kind of animated feature. Not like CGI, but like Ralph Bakshi.

Like the video you did for U2?
That one was fun to do but I was thinking more like a movie. Like a feature movie.

Speaking of that, how far would you say you're from reaching your life goals?
Look, all I can say is that I'm pretty happy.  

Follow Todd James here: https://www.instagram.com/toddjamesreas