Dalek (James Marshall), interviewed in his home/studio Durham, North Carolina, 13th Feb 2008, for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms.
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“When I look at art, I really try to make no attempt to understand it. I love architecture, art, sculpture, the same as everyday things, trees, leaves, cars. Inspiration is everywhere in the sense of the way colours and shapes work. I try to take everything from a really internal place, informed by graphics and music and history and society, but in a way that’s been channelled and re-routed and amalgamated and comes out in a different way.”
For an artist who grew up partly in Japan before re-routing to the streets of Chicago in his teenage years, moving on to Washington and eventually Brooklyn under a street name channelled directly from a long-running English TV series, it somehow fitted the fortuitously amalgamated pattern of influences on Dalek’s work to discover that the animation cell paints he uses originate in South London, only a few miles away from the home of Paul Jones and Fiona McKinnon who run Elms Lesters. The label for bottle “408” (light grey) on Dalek’s work bench reads Chromacolour Animation Supplies, Cartoon House, Weir Road, Balham, London, SW12. It was Kaws who introduced the cell paints to Dalek around 2001 when Dalek first moved to New York and tried out materials Kaws had been working with at Disney’s Jumbo Pictures.
“When I first started, I was using mostly house paints. You could get any colour in mix-match paint and a quart of house paint would last you forever and it was cheap. Eventually I moved onto Liquitex, but the big issue with using any kind of acrylic paint like that is you have a limited colour palette. You have to mix your own colours, so getting any kind of consistency in colour is a problem.”
The huge Chromacolour rolodex of 1,800 colour chips now hanging up in Dalek’s studio liberated his palette, expanding it into hues and tones that he wouldn’t ordinarily have mixed by hand due to the uncertainty in producing the exact same colour twice.
When you first see them, Dalek’s most recent compositions hit you like an Escher-on-acid trip through hallucinatory topographies, sucking the eye deep into their vortex of pop-Piranesi-meets-Archigram spatial intersections. He likes to challenge ideas of space and perspective, pushing them to the limit of making logical visual sense whilst still feeling tight compositionally. There might, for instance, be an area in the foreground that pushes back into a zone that should be behind it but reads as in front of it. Dalek revels in the dynamic friction that sparks out of rubbing up the wrong way against long-established traditions of pictorial logic like those laid down in the Renaissance, where blue at the top of a painting getting lighter towards the horizon is read by the human eye as recessive depth. In the case of the new work coming into being on the studio wall, the pencil cobweb of grid lines on hard flat wood is starting to come alive in small rectangular clusters of colour gradation from cyan to electric to baby blue.
“I always start with blues. The nice thing about them is that they work as middle ground colours that cover well. It helps build up momentum in making the painting, then I’ll lay in greys and pinks which don’t cover so well, building up to interjecting yellows and the reds, the pop colours, which is where I really start pushing and pulling things, then ultimately the whites which pull things out to the foreground and stitch the composition together.”
But the blues aren’t confined to the upper reaches where they might normally be read as sky, they hover low in the foreground too, so how predetermined is the location of each region of colour?
“A lot of it for me is experimentation. I learned the basics of colour and graphic sensibility by doing graffiti. If you’re painting murals and productions with other people, you start to learn how colour pops things and pushes things spatially. At the same time, it’s not necessarily something you’re consciously making decisions about as you do it. My biggest issue with painting and drawing right back to being a kid was leaving negative space. I had to fill every inch – it was just in my nature – I didn’t know how to ‘create a composition’.”
Dalek transfers no pre-drawn template onto his blank panels; there is no “squaring-up”.
“If you look at the panel you’ll see endless eraser marks everywhere where I’ve built the composition as I go. I pick a starting point and then just go ahead, trying ideas as I’m drawing. I try to leave it as open as possible and let it grow organically based on my instincts.”
The concerns of 1960s’ Minimalism echo through Dalek’s work – natural growth, primary structures and the play between colour and form, surface and space, density and lightness.
“The paintings on canvas started off really minimal because I realised there was a power of simplicity in Minimalism. Like how to use colour if you’re only using five colours, how to create a composition with only one or two elements. The less things that are in a composition the stronger they have to be. With something like a two-colour throw-up in graffiti, your letter forms have to be really solid, because there’s no crazy colour and nonsense to hide it. Painting minimal allowed me to fine-tune the iconography of what I was painting because it forced me to keep pushing it and experimenting until it worked.”
Out of this disciplined self-schooling, Dalek would slowly introduce more elements, building up layers of complexity balanced against a kind of Shinto serenity. Just as Shinto makes no distinction between the natural physical world and the supernatural transcendent world, Dalek suggests in his paintings a coalescence of physical and mental structures.
In New York, he worked for a time as a studio painter for Takashi Murakami, who in the 1990s developed his Theory of the Superflat in which he linked the clean, flattened space of traditional Edo period landscapes to the pop manga images saturating contemporary Japanese visual culture. They shared “extreme planarity” Murakami argued, “allowing the viewer to assemble an image in their minds from the fragments they gathered scanning the picture”.
Dalek has arrived at his own empirical formula, letting “whatever fragmented catalogue is in my head for visual ID amalgamate and come out in a way that they otherwise might not”.
The spatial dynamic and the colour dynamic almost work as 3-D axes converging on a fourth dimensional zone that challenges perceptual logic.
“It’s come full circle and now I feel connected back to how I used to draw. When I knew nothing about drawing or painting or anything, it was my natural instinct to draw very busy and create all these complicated things but now I’m going back to that with an understanding of colour, shape and perspective and how they all work together.”
Two changes in technique have recently allowed Dalek to ratchet the spatial complexity up a notch. In linear terms, there’s an increased overlapping between forms whilst, in colour terms, subverting the light-to-dark or conversely dark-to-light build-up of tonal depth by interjecting chop-change colour values at will across the picture plane to break up conventional recession.
It’s not unusual for Dalek to go back and look at his own paintings in order to progress the work as a whole. Often he sees a painting within a painting, chopping out a section of an existing work and pushing deeper into it to create a new one. This is how his long-term protagonist Space Monkey began to shift from centre stage and eventually disappear from Dalek’s viewfinder. Moving towards abstraction is a development you can trace in the work of “Op” artists like Bridget Riley and Viktor Vasarely as well as Matisse-inspired American abstract colourists like Ellsworth Kelly. Feel for colour and form is the key and over time the artist seeks to purify and concentrate that feeling.
His first painting of 2008 amalgamated two quite different sources – old Jack Kirby X-Men comics and black-and-white photographs of 1930s’ European water towers. Far from being merely Googled image references, these are objects from Dalek’s real world. He has an impressive vintage comic collection and once he’d mentioned the water towers I spotted at least two on the drive back to Raleigh Durham airport.
“In those old Fifties’ postwar comics they used a lot of really dark colours, but somehow it worked. I was thinking I don’t know how you use all these dark blues, dark browns and dark purples all mashed together on top of a white background. It doesn’t make sense in a lot of ways, but it works.”
Whilst Dalek’s fascination with colour interaction is always clearly visible in his paintings, the social comment in his work is perhaps less overt.
“All the work for me comes from human dynamics, that’s always been at the forefront of what’s interesting to me, how people behave, how people interact, what people create, what they destroy. I’m not going to come right out and say ‘healthcare sucks’ but….”
But then he did call a recent solo show in Washington, DC Overweight – a reference to increased obesity levels – after being dissuaded from using the more controversial Benevolent Suicide.
And even though James and his family recently moved out of New York to find breathing space amongst the forests of North Carolina, the work still echoes the overfed body of the city and its exponential proliferations. It’s just that now the live-work space in which the artist manufactures his virtual space has a different connection to the world outside, the painting process itself having become more than ever a way to decompress.
“At the end of the journey there’s this visual history of who and where I was at various stages in my life. For me, it’s therapy, it’s a diary, it’s any number of things – it just is.”
Halfway through our meeting, James stopped in mid-sentence and pointed behind me through the doorway to a tree in the yard.
“There’s a hawk in the tree right there. We got eagles down here too.”
Ellsworth Kelly came to mind again, his own choice of reds long inspired by the plumage of the red-tailed hawks and cardinals he observes from his Spencertown studio window.
“The architectural elements in my work aren’t meant to specifically mirror a city. These structures might represent buildings but they are boxes and portals to other worlds, things go in, things come out, there’s not always a connection to how they operate. Sometimes the buildings represent people or any number of things, not just a tall box. They could be trees, anything. Nothing is intended to be literal, including the figures.”
He doesn’t title the works any more, preferring leave any meaning as “ambiguous” as possible.
“To have no titles or clues as to what the work is allows viewers to engage with it on a personal level, create their own stories and internalise it to themselves, which I think is important in making good art. Good art is what it is internally because it speaks to people on all levels.”
Is that a reason that Space Monkey doesn’t feature in the most recent work then, because of the tendency for people to read the work in narrative terms and Dalek wanting to be free from that for a while?
“Partly what was interesting about doing the Space Monkey paintings was toying with that idea of having a character but not having a narrative, realising that people will create one. It’s human nature, people wanting to define things, like in a Rorschach test. If you can’t define something, people hate it, so why is that? But at the same time I hate it when people tell me what things are about. Art’s not an intellectual thing I don’t think, it’s very visceral. The minute you know what something’s about, there’s no engagement, no personal exploration. That’s what I used to love about going to the Smithsonian in Washington to see art, the exploration. I’ve never had any desire to know what any artist ever meant with what they were doing because the minute I know it totally kills what I see, the way I interpret and internalise it.”
Maybe it’s as Ellsworth Kelly said: “Aesthetics is for artists as ornithology is for the birds”.
Ben Jones, July 2008