' The scene is there, created underwater; now I want to see the places it will go, new and unrepeatable. It appeals to me to be able to handle the work like this; not knowing what is coming. '
noted in a letter from Alexander James to Andrei Tolstoy dated 9th June 2014.
Andrei Tolstoy (née. Leo) 1956-2016. Russian Academic, Professor Of Arts & President AICA Russia.
' The result is an acceptance of the contingent in sequence of semi-controlled accidents, much as occurs in process based abstract painting like Richter’s, and with the characteristic attraction of being able to trace or at least speculate on what events have caused the particular outcome. '
‘ The photograph is the only existing record of a far bigger conceptual process that is produced through his complete dedication to a renaissance studio practice. ’
Russian Academic, Professor Of Arts & President AICA Russia. May 2014.
‘ Walking in to any show by English artist Alexander James is like being in a multi story car park lit by Dan Flavin. ’
‘ Aching with the dramatic radiance of Caravaggio, James’ figures arise from a well of negative potential, as if from the depths of the fugitive self. ’
Article by Lizzy Hajos. critical writer & academic. September 2011.
‘ James moves beyond the falsity of icons to propose the need for a spiritual renaissance with nature. ’
' I aim to Interrogate the theoretical & physical limitations of sculpture, painting and photography; the more obscured they are the more you will want to explore. '
‘ With the recent acquisition of ‘The great leveller’ into the Donna Span Collection ‘Light: An Eternal Presence’; with the piece I am reminded of other artists: words found in the great Russian texts, the sonnets of John Donne, and sounds from the music of John Tavener. 'The Great Leveller' sits in fine company. It is a Vanitas in contemporary dress captured through the lens of a camera. ’
Notes to artist from Donna Span, Founder. The Donna Spaan Contemporary Collection of Art, Calvin College, USA. May 2016.
‘ The consistency of his artistic vision is one of the most remarkable things about Alexander James. Having discovered his voice in the late eighties, he has devoted himself to articulating it with the lifelong self-discipline of a medieval monk. In our publicity chasing era, such conviction commands respect. He is an oak tree in the landscape of contemporary art, not some lesser rooted being bowing wherever the wind of public opinion takes it. ’
noted in a letter from Andrei Tolstoy dated 14th July 2014.
Andrei Tolstoy (née. Leo) 1956-2016. Russian Academic, Professor Of Arts & President AICA Russia.
' The most impressive technical feat is how clear and light the figures appear to be against blackness, generating a saintly aura. That dramatic and moral use of light is characteristic of Caravaggio.'
Critical text for 'All icoans are false' by Paul Carey-Kent. January 2017
‘ James’ fanatical insistence on being involved with every aspect of his creations is awe inspiring, and is perhaps only matched by his disdain for the easy route.’
Article by Dominic Perry, Culture Correspondent, Philistine Magazine. January 2016
‘ I only buy things as a dealer when I have a belief in the quality of the work. I may not like it, but it has to be the absolute best. ’
‘ A poignant celebration of life and elevation of the banal that achieves a balance between voyeurism and intimacy. ’
Article by Davina Catt, Arts Editor, Interview Magazine. 25th April 2014.
‘ A minimalist Gregory Crewdson. ’ Article by Cary Georges, LA Times. February 2003.
‘ The meticulous nature of James' work marks him out as an artist at the forefront of contemporary photography, combining multimedia elements as part of his unique style. ’
Article by Jess Rayner, Arts Correspondent, The Global Panorama. May 23rd 2014.
‘ Captures animals and plants submerged in water at an ambiguous point between life and death with painterly compositions that are the product of a renaissance art practice and science. ’
Article by Lizzy Hajos, critical writer & academic. September 2011.
‘ This method of exploring the subtle distortions the water makes on light is painstakingly exact and the results are quite extraordinary. ’
Article by Lucy Davies, The Telegraph. August 2011.
‘ English artist Alexander James captures the Dutch tradition, while being strikingly original and contemporary. ’
Book by Dr Michael Petry, 'Nature Morte' published by Thames & Hudson. December 2012.
‘ Like Man Ray meeting Jet Lee. ’ Article in NY Times. October 1992.
‘ Exciting floral arrangements are juxtaposed against violent chemical reactions, common flora is transposed into an ambiguous setting creating highly complex and timeless imagery. ’
Article by John Routledge, Arts Academic. 'Fusion'.
‘ Capturing the haunting and ephemeral moment in an intense state of depth and chiaroscuro. ’
Article by Nina Azzarello. Arts Correspondent, DesignBoom 14th May 2014.
'Rastvorennaya Pechal' April 2014. text by ANDREI TOLSTOY 1956-2016 (née. Leo).
Ever since the time when it arose in the 1830s, photography has experienced a certain inferiority complex with regard to painting. Naturally, this complex has not remained immutable — over time, photography acquired the ability to achieve special textural and compositional effects that brought photographs and painted works closer together. A special term was even invented, ‘pictorealism’ which stressed this convergence and there has been a recognised blurring of the borders between the photograph and the painting. Later still, photography gained colour, along with a multitude of opportunities to convey its tones and nuances, ‘solarization’ and inversion. As the art of photography matured and its instruments and tools were perfected, the two began to swap places to a certain extent. Painting, freed at the end of the 19th century by photography from its need to comprehensively reproduce the visible world in the forms perceived by the human eye, and thus giving a previously unheard of freedom of individual and, consequently, subjective expression to the artist, began increasingly, as it were, to “envy” the evermore complex technical capabilities of photography, such as shooting with prolonged exposures, with special lenses and similar cunning approaches. And that’s without even mentioning the endless opportunities opened up in the achievement of an increase in expression through motion film. As a result, painting put forward its own modes for the Cubist combining of several points of view on one and the same object and Futurist decomposition of movement into phases in order to convey the internal logic of the form and its internal and external dynamic in the virtual space of the avant garde work constructed by the artist.
Painting methods and modes in contemporary photography, whether it be today’s more widespread digital photography or increasingly rare analogue photography, with shots transposed onto film. The most accepted and prized, as a rule, are not those achieved with chemical, physical or computerised means, which is to say that the developed negative or resulting positive is altered through these processes (what we might in this case call a distinctive “post-production”); instead, it is those works created with special, sometimes painstaking preparatory work carried out before exposing film that is prized. In this case, the creative process of the photographic artist recalls the troubled journey of a painting from the initial idea for a work, through a series of studies and sketches, to the work’s logical conclusion, akin to the concluding chords in the finale of a musical phrase much akin to a sonata or opera.
The style of Alexander James’s recent works aims towards the preservation and reconsideration within the photographic artwork of the characteristic expressive means from paintings of old. In certain still life's, carried out with a thorough knowledge and genuine love for the texture of wide ranging materials (often preparing by creating sculptural models and objects to be used as props) and the metaphysical and symbolic functions of the depicted objects which serve as key elements that provide the entire composition with a cautionary-didactic sense (as described by the word vanitas), James is clearly recalling de Zurbaran and his followers, and also the Surrealists (the ‘Vanitas’ series, 2008–2013; and ‘Swarm' series). This is expressed, first and foremost, in a particular precision, the focusing of the optics, which makes all of the components in the compositional whole “palpable” in a certain inexpressible sensuality, then brought as close as possible to the viewer, who can do nothing other than struggle against the temptation to touch the surface of the photograph. Provocative effects of this kind are deeply coded in the artist’s concept. Nevertheless, he often says: “I don’t think about aesthetics – they’re born instinctively in the process of creation.”
Alexander James’s Russian project, ‘Distil Ennui’, is constructed on a series that he has already tried — working on complex scenes submerged in purified water. The technique achieves a unique visual volume, the artist resorts to imposing a transparent, light layer of paint brush activation directly onto the surface of the water, in order to achieve a distinct “painterly” effect. This time, recalling the renowned canvas by John Everett Millais, ‘Ophelia’, and ‘Le Jeune Martyr’ by Paul Delaroche, James has created a series of works in which the figures of young, men, women, and children are captured floating freely in a stratum of water. This layer of water functions in each work as a special filter, transforming everything. The faces are covered over in ripples, they blur, sometimes they can’t be made out at all. The fabric of bright colours, in which the bodies of the individuals are wrapped, or the clothing of an indeterminate-romantic style in which they are dressed, under the water is made up of incredibly intricate, but always smooth, as in a slow-motion film, streaming folds and wrinkles. The continual and reciprocal shifting of lit and shadowed sections across the faces and bodies of the models, defined by the natural movement of underwater flows and eddies that can’t be made out by the naked eye, give the images a mysterious and enigmatic but genuinely painterly character that is stressed by the black, neutral background against which each figure stands out so effectively. Each figure is enclosed within themselves, forming their own individual space located on a conditional and unstable border between the real world and a fantastical vision, between reality and a dream. The refraction of the light and the colour under the layer of water makes each ray of light and each colour accent not only like a free stroke that virtuoso masters of the brush were capable of in their day, but also like the shifting texture of the paintings of the Impressionists and the internal dynamic structure of Expressionist canvases. Photography as an art, in this way, reciprocally exchanges roles with painting as an art form through complex process and, moreover, both of them, it appears, are inspired by the visual discoveries of art house cinema.
Allusions to the images and characters of renowned paintings by the masters of the past, in almost every work are far more multifarious than Alexander James himself claims — in this project he has concentrated his wide-ranging visual experience, including his unconscious experience. The models in certain pictures sometimes apparently by chance adopt archetypal poses such as those of the classic figures of Sacred history (sometimes this intuitive sense is supported by a limited number of attributes — angel’s wings on a child, a youth’s Christian crucifix) and the recognisable characters of all manner of genre scenes. And all of this, in their day, was seen by and framed up by the masters of various countries and eras — the Italians of the Late Renaissance and Mannerism, the French, the Dutch and the Flemish of 17th century Baroque, the Classicists of the 18th century and the French and the Spanish Romantics — and so on to the the very end of the 19th century. What should also be stressed is that the analogies and the allusions in these compositions by the artist are not only unquestionable and recognisable, they also, albeit not always unambiguously and obviously, turn out to be even deeper than is claimed by their author himself, who with passion and brilliance working in the photographic medium doesn’t think to conceal his admiration and fundamental knowledge of the art of painting. This admiration and knowledge, however, are not a matter of unthinking delight, being more akin to a mournful wisdom (‘in much wisdom is much grief’). It is from here that the title for Alexander James’s Russian project arises — ‘Distil Ennui.’
So, spectators at the exhibition will have the opportunity to take part in a fascinating interactive action of a dual type. On the one hand, it is not unlike a quiz or parlour game that tests the spectator’s knowledge of world art; on the other, it is like a competition during games of association, but a competition where rather than the speed of recognition or the identification of prototypes, it is the convincingness and the grounds for a certain associative series that is being tested. In both cases it transpires that the game is an extraordinarily important foundation for the culturally creative act that is carried out through the activation of visual memory. As Johan Huizinga wrote in his famed composition ‘Homo Ludens’, without the support of a certain degree of play in people’s behaviour, culture is in principle impossible…
Professor Andrey Tolstoy; 1956-2016 Née; Leo Tolstoy. An academician of the Russian Academy of Arts. Director of the Theory and History of the Visual Arts Research Institute at the Russian Academy of Arts. Tolstoy is a specialist on Russian art of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well as on Russian art’s creative links with Europe in the Early Modern and Contemporary periods and on the art of Russian artist-émigrés in Europe and America in the 20th century. Author of over a hundred academic publications on these themes in Russian, English, French and Italian, released in Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland and the USA.
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ALEXANDER JAMES: USE OF WATER by Paul Carey-Kent - January 2017
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.' Philip Larkin
What sort of artist is Alexander James? It would be easy to align him with the contiguous YBA generation – James was born in 1967, Damien Hirst in 1965. Here are big, brash, self-consciously flashy images obsessed with death, exploiting the distortion of the world under water with a slickness akin to advertising – the better to modernise and expose the classic tropes of art history as being stuck in a different time and place. In fact, James is more an abrasive outsider than fashionable insider, more in the mould of van Gogh or Ensor, an artist of passionate intensity who has pursued his particular vision for thirty years irrespective of trends, and regardless of what others might think. ‘Artists must be sacrificed to their art’, he has said, ‘like bees, they must put their life into the sting they give’. James’ approach is spiritual without being religious as such – Larkin, after all, is mocking religion in suggesting that it would make sense to construct one. Indeed, James declares that those objects which are set up to inspire devotion – say gods, money, possessions, brands, celebrities – should not be treated as icons. It’s no surprise, though, to find that his practice has been compared to that of a monk.
James doesn’t see himself as a photographer, more as a sculptor whose setting is water, but who for practical reasons must record rather than retain the tableaux he constructs. By way of demonstration, a skull floats permanently in an eerily lit vitrine of water on the roof of his East London studio. What the photographs lose in immediacy of encounter, though, they gain in aesthetic modulation, and in the further category confusion of looking very like paintings. I don’t find myself wishing that the photographs were sculptures or paintings, but relishing the ways all three means feed into the images.
Spelling out his purpose early, James titled his studio, formed in 1990, ‘Distil Ennui, to extract the essence and beauty of life to appease world weariness’. He started out with the classic Vanitas – arrangements of fruit, flowers and dead animals emphasising that this world is fleeting, and so striving for the things of this world is an empty pursuit – but with the difference that his photographs are of objects submerged into black, velvet-lined tanks filled with highly purified water. James was a natural for the theme. ‘Loss is a terrible thing’, he says, ‘unless you know how to celebrate it. All negative things for me must be converted into a positive act of creation’. Since then James has completed many bodies of work, but has remained consistent in both underlying subject and tone: the metaphysics and mechanics of water inspire serious explorations of the world and its meaning.
James’ best known works in the direct Vanitas mode may be those which, as if flying could be swimming, put butterflies under water (‘Swarm’, 2010-11 and ‘Transparency of a Dream’, 2013-14). I guess most people would try to work out how to Photoshop that unlikely scenario, but not James. He breeds butterflies in the studio, which is dotted with chrysalises, specifically the South American Morpho genus, which is naturally capable of entering a comatose state. He can then photograph them underwater, alive and unharmed, with no need of postproduction. The results are unsettlingly beautiful in their combination of natural and unnatural.
The watery setting, then, affects the spectacle, but how does it alter the message of the Vanitas? It might remind us that oceans cover 71% of the planet’s surface, to which we tend to pay disproportionately little attention. And, of course, global warming threatens to increase the proportion of water to calamitous effect. We won’t be fishes out of water, we’ll be butterflies in it. That constitutes a move from micro to macro warning and, potentially, from acceptance to activism: from Memento mori - ‘remember you will die’, whatever you do, get used to it – to ‘remember the whole planet will die – unless we act fast’.
James first placed people under water in images inspired by John Everett Millais’ 1851-2 canvas ‘Ophelia’ and ‘La Jeune Martyr’, 1855, by Paul Delaroche . He made those in London but, never one to make things easy for himself, in 2013 he decamped with seven tons of kit to set up in a derelict building in Moscow. There he photographed Russians suspended in water for the first body of work featured here, ‘Rastvoyrennaya Pechal’ (‘dissolved sadness’), as inspired by various nineteenth century paintings.
Putting people in water might sound macabre in this deathly context. Will they read as drowned? Surprisingly, perhaps, they don’t: as James has said ‘the subjects appear to be floating in a black space’ and ‘the collaboration within this void offers a serene and dreamlike sensation’. All have their eyes either closed of occluded, increasing their distance from us, enhancing the sense of reverie. The occasional appearance of bubbles – though Vanitas paintings use them separately to stand in for life’s brevity – suggests breath recent enough not to be the subjects’ last. Yet if the images prove undisturbing as images of people, they do disturb as environmental warnings. That micro to macros move occurs again, as hair and clothes act to confirm the eddying currents, and underwater shadows play a spectral role.
‘Rastvoyrennaya Pechal’, like all James’ series, was heavy on pre-planning – from sketches, to handmade props, to cutting and sewing all the garments worn, to training the models in yoga exercises. It was equally minimal in post-production: all images are exposed on 10 x 8 film plates, then either chosen or rejected prior to the framing decision – which James takes as seriously as the rest of the process. The most impressive technical feat is how clear and light the figures appear to be against blackness, generating a saintly aura. That dramatic and moral use of light is characteristic of Caravaggio, and the titles reference classical Greek mythology, adding more time periods into the mix. Moving to the present, there’s also an interesting comparison possible with the leading Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky. His ‘Water’ series takes an aerial view which rends the spectacular grandeur of torrents and deltas painterly, removing us from the experience of being under or even close to the water, while emphasising its scale and importance. Burtynsky’s is a system builder’s top-down vision in counterpoint to James’ bottom up phenomenology.
Going to church
The second component of the All Icons Are False show is the ‘Rosae’ series (2010), in which underwater blooms are arranged to form various signs. The red rose as a ‘symbol of unrelenting love’, says James, ‘is juxtaposed against a deep dark void’. The void stands in for the vacuity imputed to what is formed by the 20-60 roses which make up each representation. This particular way of showing the symbols makes them look like the most modern form of icon: the summary pictogram on a computer screen which links to a programme. The ‘Rosae’ series is suitably shallow, both in its straightforward presentation, and in the flatness which sees the flowers appear to float on the surface rather than swim in the depths. Three major religions are invoked in small format via the crucifix, the Star of David, and the Khalifar star and crescent. The one commercial symbol, ‘Chanel', gets the biggest billing at 120 x 90cm. That may imply the greater emptiness of the realm, the proposition then being that religious icons are false, that brands and the celebrities who advertise them have become religious equivalents in our culture, and that they are even less worthy.
The show also includes two quite different, and spectacular, images of roses in water. In the large prints from the 'Glass' series of transparent roses (2012), James uses a process which naturally removes the pigment from the petals, leaving behind a fragile, skeletal structure which appears - as if a rose could ever be clothed – somehow naked. The capillaries are on view like flesh stripped of skin, making the flowers look very vulnerable and redoubling the air of mortality evoked. Can a rose drown, one wonders, in the very water which also sustains a cut plant’s life?
The Vanitas still life, then, takes us back to the Dutch golden age, and the Russian figures to the Pre-Raphaelites, but with an Impressionist infection. The images of the series ‘All Icons are False’ itself bear some resemblance to paintings of flowers in water – most obviously Monet's waterlilies – but look more like abstract paintings: the scraped canvases of Gerhard Richter and the syncopated striations or Jean-Paul Riopelle come most readily to mind. The slight variations in focus and blurs from movement resemble by turns the effect of brushstrokes or smeared paint.
My liturgy would employ
The most literal and immediate effect is of looking through a textured glass door, such as is most typically found – appropriately enough – screening the watery goings-on of a bathroom. Second, the images look rather like a view of a river from above, one which has perhaps been put through some sort of digital distortion but retained its ripples. Or maybe we’re looking at a more magnified zone: could it be the detail a butterfly’s wing or lizard’s skin? All those impressions, though, are soon displaced by the references to stained glass, as that covers both form and content. Light streams through from beyond, and the complex overlays generate the sense of an intricate framework imposed separately from the composition, rather as the leading operates in stained glass. The flowers could be those which appear in stained glass imagery, and James has, in fact, been careful to research what those would have been. He uses old varieties, returning us to how they looked at the time when their own symbolism was most vivid. Nineteenth century church goers would automatically have associated the rose with the Virgin Mary, the white lily with purity, the tulip with grace. James also features the red Lilium Chalcedomicum, which he sees as a link, through its prevalence in Galilee, back to the Sermon on the Mount.
To make the new series, James has taken 850 plate film photographs of 50 petal heavy arrangements of flowers densely combined underwater, then variously layered these ‘core plates’ on a scanner – up to four at a time – using both positive and negative images. The rhythms which result are complicated, as not only are several plates scanned, but both the natural forms of the flowers and the wave effects of the water make their separate contributions. Various unpredictable, semi-accidental effects arise from the process: topographically complex overlapping; unexpected greyscales where colours combine; evidence of movement in the water; strips where the edges of slides don’t quite align; slides not yet fully dry stick together slightly; dark zones with a dominance of negative images; the odd mote of studio dust stuck between slides; gaps between slides causing apparently differential focus. The result is an acceptance of the contingent in sequence of semi-controlled accidents, much as occurs in process based abstract painting like Richter’s, and with the characteristic attraction of being able to trace or at least speculate on what events have caused the particular outcome.
These are much more intricate images than the ‘Rosae’. The combination of science and nature is not reduced to ciphers as are commerce and religion. Where the roses suggest straightforward surface effects, ‘All Icons Are False’ enacts a complex deconstruction and rebirthing which resonates with the need James sees for ‘a spiritual renaissance with nature’. And if art is the other potential area of activity which – however bad much of it may be - can be venerated when ‘all icons are false’, then its abstract qualities must convey that here. No wonder James has spent many hours examining the images closely to see which should be selected – those with the right balance of rhythm and irregularity; with a gothic undertone to the organic; with a complex, unanticipatable yet harmonious interaction of hues.
It's pretty clear, then, that if James were asked to construct a religion he would make use of water. There’s a logic to that, for it sustains life and if water is threatened, so are we. Like Larkin, James would have little time for international commerce or the literalities of a creed, yet the aesthetic emerging from his theological approach to making art chimes very well with the poet’s conclusion to ‘Water’, in which Larkin seems to move beyond irony to a genuine epiphany:
And I should raise in the east
i Philp Larkin: ‘Water’, 1954 (all four quotes)
Paul Carey-Kent. Freelance art writer and curator (member, International Association of Art Critics)