Multimedia artist Alexander James resists to be put into a box. His diverse output ranges from paintings to sculptures and everything in between and mainly reflects on the role of identity in an increasingly digital world. His pieces often quote childhood memories and thereby give a deep insight of James’ personal and artistic evolution. The artist confronts his own identity just as much as he observes general trends and it’s fluidity within our society. The ever-changing influence of digital media plays a key role in this well-balanced debate that does not try to point fingers, but rather explores trends and risks. We met Alexander James in his west London studio to discuss his exhibition ‘Sharper than Razor Blades’, the sources of his inspiration and his take on the state of resistance in our society.
Your exhibition ‘Sharper than Razor Blades’ was inspired by a teenage punk hairstyle. Do you feel like music was an act resistance in your adolescence?
Definitely! It all started in school; my grammar school was very strict regarding school uniforms. After that I went to a secondary school where they had no uniforms and encouraged you to dress as you please. With all that new expressive freedom, music was a very dominant key part that determined how I wanted to be and what I wanted to dress like. In a way, music has always been and still is in the centre of a lot that inspires me and what I do.
What kind of music do you listen to these days? What inspires you right now?
Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Elvis Presley, which is quite interesting. I’ve been listening to a lot of Can as well, which is very much the opposite with it’s aggressive tempo. It gets me going, I kind of need this sometimes to wake up and feel more energised. Other than that, I listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye, Temptations and Martha Skye. I listen to a lot of British rock ’n roll, I listen to a lot of Cliff Richards. For me it’s so diverse I couldn’t pinpoint one artist or genre, I love King Krule as well.
Do you have different musicians that you would listen to for different projects? For example, do you listen to different music when you are working on sculptures opposed to when you paint?
Not really, it really is a variation and depends on how I’m feeling when I’m in the studio rather than what I’m working on. if I’m feeling tired, I’ll listen to something more upbeat, if I’m more relaxed and I need to get myself into painting for 12 hours then I would listen to more therapeutic music, like jazz and classical music that have 4 hours sets.
Billy Holiday, Sex Pistols, Public Enemy, there are lots of influential musicians and songs that triggered cultural movements with their work. Do you feel like music still has that power in an era of growing and diversifying digital influence?
I think because we are exposed to so much more digital influence that it’s much harder to pinpoint such incredible bands like The Sex Pistols or The Clash. Back in the day you could categorise these bands easier, because they kind of broke through. But in a way it is also easier these days because you can reach someone with your music in Australia in seconds by putting it on SoundCloud. Hard to say. I guess it’s different times so people are singing about different things and subjects.
It seems like back in the days you had more freedom, there wasn’t a camera on you every time you left the house. Nowadays you have to behave as a celebrity or an artist because everyone is watching you.
Exactly! I think back then people were very expressive. Of course, there are still some expressive artists today, but now they are a lot more careful. Everyone has a team around them telling them what to say and how to act. Back then they also had a team, but they just loved the artist for who they were. I think the bands that made the purest music for sure were the most expressive, and I think they lived in a time that doesn’t exist anymore.
With your work you explore identity in an age of digitalisation. What’s your stand on social media and how does it influence your work as an artist?
I try not take it too seriously at all, I see it as a tool to display my work. It’s quite instant, good to get reactions. It’s nice to share my work especially with people that don’t live in London and to get their opinions and critiques. I think there’s so many pros and cons with using social media, it’s about finding the right balance for you quite frankly.
On platforms like Instagram the current zeitgeist is often shaped by certain visual trends or aesthetics rather than topics or opinions, do we need more opinion leaders on these platforms and in our society in general?
See, I think because of Instagram there are almost too many opinions. I think people are taking things are a lot more seriously, and again it really goes back to what we were saying about bands as well. Having a voice is important but I think people are getting too carried away. There need to be limitations and balance is key with all the social media. I think people are getting too lost in it sometimes. Again, there’s so many pros and cons with social media conversations, I try to keep clear from the politics of it and try to use it very deliberately.
Fashion in general and fabric in particular seem to play an important role in your creative output. How important is fashion as a tool of self-expression in your view?
I think fashion and the way people dress themselves is an essential tool of expression. It’s really interesting for me to see the materials and colours people use. I work with colours all the time, so I try and refer to that when I dress in a sense. Sometimes I just like to come to the studio wearing very easy, comfortable outfits like baggy trousers and big jumpers so I don’t need to think so much and can just focus on my work. At the same time, I think fashion and the way people present themselves is important. Texture for me is the most important thing. When I personally put an outfit together, I like playing with different textures. I like contrast in general, when I see that on clothing, I gravitate towards it.
You incorporate fashion in your sculptures as well. What’s the idea behind that?
I had the idea to do it for a long time, but I guess I didn’t have the confidence to get myself to do It. Then I started playing around with these ideas and tried to approach my sculptures the same way I approach a painting. I look at mediums, and I am training myself to approach each medium the same way. I am also trying not to think too much about everything, because that’s when the output feels the most natural.
Some of the characters I’ve painted are references from different parts of my life, so I thought it would be interesting to almost go back into my wardrobe and take certain elements of clothing from those periods and start collaging them together for that certain character. Using old fabric, old trousers and jackets that I’ve had and making sure that everything is appropriate for that character is a very important part.
A lot of your work is inspired by childhood memories and distinctive moments growing up. How much inspiration do you draw from your current surroundings, what are your main sources of inspiration in a world of information overkill?
My childhood memories are a very instinctive place to go to when creating ideas and characters. There are so many from many different stages of my life, so they are easy to pull. Saying that, a lot of my painting titles are very much influenced by an experience or memory in the past, present or even a future one I would like to have. I try and take parts from what’s currently going on in the world, I think it’s interesting to question that. As an artist you are constantly responding to things that are going on around you. When I was in Mexico I had quite eccentric dreams, they triggered a lot in me. it made me realise how interesting it is to document dreams. I like to make sure that there’s always a number of different narratives that come together.
A lot of artists have a similar approach, it’s almost like self-therapy in a way.
Definitely, I think I can completely agree. It’s funny you say that, before you got here, I did a line drawing on a piece of paper and I realised working on paper is my therapy, it really is! I can offload any thoughts or memories; I can write what I want, and I know I can store that paper away safely. I think each artist within their profession would find their own therapeutic way of making work. For me, at the moment, it is definitely the work on papers.
How did your childhood affect you in becoming the person you are and did your upbringing shape your view of the world as an artist?
I think most people’s childhoods make or break them. I think my childhood definitely had an impact on my work and still does. It definitely triggers a lot. Your view of the world is set at a young age, but it’s constantly changing based on who you meet, who you associate yourself with and places you see when you travel. I’m still learning so much, and views are always set but there’s so much added content that’s coming into play depending on what I’m doing. I love having wild discussions with friends who are also creatives and it’s nice because they are very open and some of them have very interesting childhoods, too. So, I think my childhood definitely plays a big part in my work. It was very much a big matter for me.
What can we expect from you in 2020?
We have a lot of exciting things planned, we’re doing an exhibition in January and I’m hoping to spend some time in the states next year to do an artist residency. A few nice group shows are in the pipeline as well. We are also working with a charity in the next couple months, which is great!