2 October saw the debut solo exhibition of the British artist David James open at Whitechapel’s GALLERY46. Entitled Civilisation, it features a series of drawings and paintings that explore the relationship between personal experience and art history. The drawings are the result of a technique that modifies reproductions of masterpieces by artists such as Velázquez and Rembrandt torn from books, while the paintings are fabricated objects made from digital enlargements of the drawings on archival canvas mounted to board, with the addition of layers of resin, hair and grit. The sublime materiality of James’s paintings both seduces and repulses, a tension that highlights the possibilities of legibility and appropriation in image making. ArtAttack caught up with David to discuss his practice in more detail.
Your drawings are the result of a meticulous sanding technique which partially erases and modifies images from vintage art books. Can you tell us a bit more how this process came about?
All of my work begins with a series of investigations or experiments – a kind of what would happen if… One of my experiments involved taking some of my collection of vintage art books apart to see if I could make new work with reproductions of old masters. Another experiment involved mark making with power tools. One of the tools was an orbital sander. Eventually the two investigations merged.
You’re an avid book collector. How did your passion for books transition to using them as art materials?
I’m obsessed with materials. Vintage art books, particularly those from the 30’s onwards, are often made using high quality cloths, paper stocks and printing techniques. At first I used these materials as a surface to draw or paint on. Then I realised that the surface was the thing, so I started removing the surface rather that adding to it.
How did hair, grit etc become part of your process? And how do you know when a work is complete?
Once I discovered that I could create a new image by sanding through layers of printed ink and paper in the ‘drawings’, I reversed the process by reproducing the drawings back into larger scale ‘paintings’. The resin, hair and grit is used to create depth and simulate the gestural qualities of paint.
A drawing is near completion if a new image reveals itself through the sanding process. Once an image is revealed, I work very carefully to ensure that I do not remove too much or too little of the original image, so completion becomes a fine balance between presence and absence of information.
Who are you influenced by?
Goya, Picasso, Bacon, Warhol and Hockney.
The works transform into pieces of new significance- can you tell us more about this metamorphosis and the biographical element? Is there a work that holds particular significance for you?
The metamorphosis happens during the sanding process. The first image I considered successful was ‘Hi Fidelity‘. Up until this point my experiments with sanding seemed mainly destructive, but in this case the resulting image appeared like an apparition from the page. It reminded me of my late father, sitting in his favourite chair listening to music.
What is next for you?
I have been working on a series of automatic drawings and paintings which I hope to show next year.
David James: Civilisation is at GALLERY46 from 2 – 25 October. For further information see: http://gallery46.co.uk/exhibitions/civilisation-david-james/