Gallery 46 is located in two renovated Georgian houses with their skirting, floorboards and sash windows still intact. Walking through the entrance hall and looking towards the original narrow staircase it’s clear that the gallery has retained the human scale of terrace living, which is in stark contrast to the inhuman minimalism and sterility of most gallery spaces. Such architecture creates a labyrinthine warren of eight modulating and intimate spaces that provide the perfect setting for David James’ intimately detailed and personal works that coalesce in front of you and come forth like auras made concrete, involuntary memories, phantoms or mirror images.
The exhibition is roughly comprised of smaller preparatory works and larger more complexly woven and layered pieces which are derived from the smaller studies. There are many acts of destruction throughout the exhibition and the smaller works are made from pages torn from the artist’s collection of books; destabilising these bodies of knowledge which often suck the life from artistic production by pigeon holing, organising and stripping the individuality from artists that defy categorisation. The selected pages, which – as I’m told – sometimes resonate with the artist on an intuitional level or with his personal biography, are then sanded on a variety of different surfaces to give James a sculptural control over these fragile leaves of paper. It’s in this way that James’ works are neither drawings nor paintings but more two-dimensional sculptural objects. The three-dimensionality of sculpture is compressed into two dimensions giving them a tension which is waiting to explode from the page.
The effect is reminiscent of how Giacometti’s figures suggest an illusionary dimension around themselves and it’s in this way that pieces such as ‘Icon’ activate and suggest a mass and volume in front of the pictorial plane. The piece is intimately intertwined with the space around it and stepping forward to take a closer look at its decaying surface feels like some kind of intrusion. But because there is no clear edge to the figure depicted it also seems to contract as if under the effect of some astringent chemical which has caused the contraction of skin cells and other body tissues. We often apply such chemicals to our skin to reverse the effects of aging, but what effect do they have on our perception of ourselves and psychological perception of the passage of time? We age psychologically regardless of what our outer surface looks like and James brings such anxieties to the surface.
In many of the works, the process of sanding and deconstructing the images has been pushed to its limit and the objects sit on a fine line between completion and destruction – lending them a transitory quality that makes the apparitions look like they could slip away at any moment. This perceptual slippage can be seen in a large work entitled ‘Hi-Fidelity’. It is almost kinetic as the light iridescently reflects off its resin surface and the image fades and reappears as you walk around the room. These larger works are often enlargements of the smaller pieces but again the reproduction has gone through a considerable transformation and some of the three-dimensionality suggested by the smaller pieces is made physical. The sanded holes in the paper become three-dimensional piles of grit and the gestural scraping marks of the sanding are echoed in the drifts of small hairs that impregnate their surface. The hairs seem to be a way for the artist to bring the marks of painting back into the work without actually painting. The works depict fragmented and blurred bodies and the hairs are a way to bring a vestige and trace of the body back into its surface without its explicit depiction.
The pieces then, go through a constant process of reproduction, destruction and transformation even when they are finished, but James’ style of reproduction does not kill the original images, it brings them back to life and reanimates their ‘aura’ as Walter Benjamin would call it. In his most famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ Benjamin proposed that the aura of artwork was decayed and devalued by its constant mechanical reproduction. This could also be extended to our contemporary condition where not just artwork and images have a damaged aura but people too. Faked, manipulated images and lifestyles on social media and their constant proliferation devalue the real person behind these profiles and some of James’ withered images appear to show the real person behind these simulated psyches. Withered because they show the weaknesses that social media often erases.
In a work entitled ‘Dot’, James reveals the artifice of such reproduced media which, as in airbrushed images of models in newspapers and magazines, we often take as fact even though they are as fictive as paintings. He does this by breaking down the construction of the image by sanding through its CMYK layers of pigment leaving behind only a thin trace of the magenta showing the images to be artificial constructions just like paintings.
To delineate ‘aura’ to the reader Benjamin described the shadow cast by a trees branch – when the branch casts its shadow over your body you feel the aura of that branch. Slowly flooding over your body, the works on display are exactly like the shadow Benjamin describes; these beautifully disquieting shadows chase us as we traverse the gallery spaces, they are shadows of the works the pages once depicted, of the people they now depict and shadows of their own fictive construction.
But James hasn’t only recaptured aura, he has also captured how the original meanings of the paintings have changed over time. Their deterioration seems to embody the looks, glances and thoughts of all those that have looked at the original artworks. This memory is not something to be retold in perfect resolution; memory is an accumulation which deteriorates itself over time. The meanings of all things in the past succumb to same ravages of time, even if they still exist in physical terms. Paintings in particular are not perfectly preserved items; their meanings are muddied and change through endless reproduction. What we see in the exhibition are not preserved Proustian memories but memory seen through the eyes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline; they have relentlessly accumulated one on the top of the other and their weight is grinding them down to the edge of dissipation.
In the process of transforming a reproduction of an image James has created other images around what appears to be the main subject of each piece. In the scrapes, stains, eddies of hair and resin we are free to subjectively imagine other images. We might see landscapes and forests, strange faces and postures, fights and confrontations between quickly moving bodies. These oscillating formations and images cloud the main subject of the work like the stories that have coloured their lives. But strangely, they are not really from the mind of the person we see depicted, they are mirrored from our own imagination and memories of such things. This mirroring of ourselves is particularly apparent in the portraits, some of which even look like decaying mirrors, but even this reproduced image of ourselves is deconstructed as the lead seems to be peeling from their backs and obscuring our view.
So, although the works are highly personal to the artist, it’s also possible to see something of ourselves and our own stories in his work. In doing this James hasn’t only captured the auras of the people some of the works are said to depict, he has also captured some of viewer’s aura too. To a certain extent we are memory made physical; the current state of our auras and our current state in the world are a total of our memories in life. We are the shadows cast by our memories and James has managed to capture this in his intricately woven surfaces.
But despite their themes of memory and the past, perhaps these surfaces are also an embodiment of our contemporary environment. The marks can appear like acid eating into the paper and one is reminded of the increasing regularity of acid attacks. They can also look like toxins purging to the surface of a body representing our anxieties about the harmful chemicals used to cultivate, and eventually damage, the earth, which find their way into our bodies. Are chemicals taking over our bodies with our use of anti-depressants, antibiotics, illegal substances and many other supplements? The title of the exhibition is ‘Civilisation’; what is the state of our civilisation if read through the fitful topography of the figures depicted in James’ surfaces?
By Matthew Turner
David James , Gallery 46
02 – 25 October 2017
Further information can be found here.