Photos: Harry Mitchell Words: Dominic Perry
“Are you really going to interview me and bring that fuckers name up?” Alexander James replies sardonically after I mention one of his contemporaries - who shall remain nameless. “His process means nothing.” It’s a scant few minutes since we settled into our cross continental chat and it appears I’ve already offended the man. Through the fibre optic magic of the internet I have been transported from Philistine home base to the British ex-pat’s studio in Moscow, where he is finishing up a surprisingly spartan breakfast. The comment hangs in the air for a moment and just as I begin to get nervous a mischievous smile breaks across James’ face and he gives a chuckle that melts the hostility my apparent faux pas has brought about. He patiently explains, “Art has become fashionable, there is nothing fashionable about me or any artist I respect. Fashion is here today and gone tomorrow. Art lives forever.” To try and label Alexander James in a conventional artistic sphere is to miss the point completely. Simple titles such as painter, photographer, or sculptor all seem to fall away when the depth of his works, and the inspirations and process from which those works grow, is fully realised. The quality as well as breadth of his art is instantly apparent to anyone who has had the good fortune of viewing even a small sampling of his impressive catalogue. James commitment to authenticity and unwavering fidelity to process are legend, yet perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Alexander James is Alexander James himself. We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with the multidisciplinary mastermind to talk about life, love, art and the intriguing labyrinth of how he pulls everything together and makes it work. “Today unfortunately an artists job is not just to create, otherwise he would wind up in some suicide pact with his own misery, you must get work seen.” He pauses, scratching his silver hair meditatively, before continuing, “Some of the things I’ve done to pay for canvasses I’m utterly ashamed of, but utterly proud of, because I think an artist must suffer… the hungrier you are the greater the works.” We continue to chat casually in what feels more like an intimate conversation than a formal interview. James eyes blaze up with passion as I mention how a fellow painter I know supports himself, “If he’s tattooing to pay bills, do it, but do it 3 days a week, and the other 4 days a week get wildly drunk, make love to his woman, and paint, and paint, and paint, and absolutely love what the tattooing enabled him to do in the studio.” James has been working in Russia for the last few years, precariously inhabiting the Red October Studios in Moscow, an experience he loves to expound upon, “I was living with rats, sleeping on bales of hay through a very harsh winter, no heating, a bucket was my only washing and ablution method. I didn’t do it because I was some sort of special character, I did it because I knew this was the way I should do it.” He tells me as he simultaneously shows me images of some of the work this bleak experience helped produce, “I can only say, in two years, I’ve never had a Russian ask me for the price of a piece.”
As the conversation naturally slides to James’ own motivations, and selling his work, he appears to sober considerably losing himself in vocal contemplation, I ask him for some examples, “Ophelia exists because I buried my lover. Vanitas exists because I faced such terrible financial burden supporting family, and my circumstances, that Vanitas felt like the right thing to do…”. I venture the opinion that the flowers, butterflies, skulls, and prostrate maidens which are the subject of many of James’ photographs and paintings envelope the viewer and engage them in a manner that is so emotional, so violent, that I’ve often wondered what demons are locked inside him, what keeps him going, “Failure is what’s going to push me to the next canvas. I think this failure is a step to the success, and it’s not a failure because you never know as an artist where you’re going, and if you do you’re a fool, you can only know your next step, your next breath, your next paintbrush stroke. If you can only think of this next step the engine will come organically.”
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,” “Do you see people ever being mentioned in museum notes, ‘Paints supplied by Dana Roney’? Mix your own, stretch your canvas, refine your craft, you’re a painter, your shit is actually quite simple, so to not know it, to not know how to make every part of your materials by hand is a disgrace to you as a practitioner.” Despite his somewhat harsh views on what makes a great painter, and a great artist, in general James insists his work is about creating a social dialogue more than a simply a finished piece, “I like to show people their weaknesses without raping their mother. You know there is a way of introducing a dialogue, either through art or through decency.” As the interview moves forward I begin to get the sense that he is interviewing me, even through a computer screen his piercing wide eyes seem to drift across my own face, assessing and gauging, trying to understand the individual. His verbosity and expressiveness does nothing to assuage the feeling that I am being weighed, measured, and hopefully not found lacking, “All of my mental RAM is wired into my eyes… I visualise things at a thousand frames per second. I think I’ve reached my own madness, in this moment of working for a year… I’ve used a dildo before now to create vibrations on the water of a certain frequency, anything, you know, I’d steal a car number plate if it’s the right, you know, creates the right wave pattern, and when I get to this stage I think I have reached a madness inside because I know I’ve starved myself for a year, I’ve shat in a bucket and carried it through the most expensive neighbourhood in Russia and had to pour it down a public drain. It is a most humbling thing, but you come back to the studio and it’s… it’s like hypnotism.” It’s apparent that James’ mind is prone to tangents and stories, and as we move forward it’s nearly impossible to keep him in check, but who would want to? I ask about his childhood and family and he becomes calm, almost cold, “I went to a school where people set fire to themselves in class because it was more interesting than listening to the teacher… I got beaten senseless every day. There’s a reason a boy leaves home at 15, leaves the country age 16. We must accept that our path must colour our future but have the reason and the good sense to see that background and to find it’s true spice and to throw it away.” He has already mentioned his great love for family, particularly his mother, and I query if she is ever dismayed by his work or process, “I’ve never worried about my practice, I’ve never worried about tomorrow, I’ve always worried about making my mother cry, and since the age of sixteen my proudest accomplishment is that my mother has never questioned any of my behaviour, not once, ever, and she’s never seen fit, appropriate, or the need to inject an opinion as to what my next move should be.” After many hilarious and entertaining digressions I look at the little clock in the corner of my computer screen and am shocked to see that we have been talking for nearly an hour and a half, the time has literally flown by. James returns to his favourite subject, the artistic process, “I couldn’t value the opinion of someone who goes to the art store and thinks they’re an artist. Come on. You know I want to see you waking up in the gutter, smelling of seven stranger’s urine, once in your life, to be at the bottom, to be in the trenches of society, to utterly have nowhere lower to go and then to face a canvas naked, bare, unashamed, and then you can do something. It’s lacking today… we’re all so comfortable. We have so much support structure around, we don’t know what pain is anymore. Without pain an artist is nothing more than an Ikea decorator.” I can’t help but agree and tell him so, he lifts his hands slowly in resignation, as if he has no control over fate, “What are we but floating bubbles, and the collision of one bubble with the next is an overlooked asset that is an artist’s job is to remind us of.” This stays with me as I switch off skype and feel the weight of his thoughts and personality still lingering in the empty room.