As subtle as a glitter-caked brick to the forehead and as sharp as a Samurai sword etched with butterflies, Mayan glyphs and Hindu deities in compromising positions, James Mathers has this to say for himself: “My name is Toylit. I am a fuck-off scientist. I make rectangles for money.”
As an ontological terrorist/wordsmith/anarchist, Mathers exists so far outside the proverbial box that standard characterizations such as artist/poet/writer/philosopher prove reductive and bland, while the apt ones, such as idiot-genius/slacker/art fiend/neologist/love-bunny extraordinaire sound sensational. But he’s earned them.
In the ’70s of his youth, Mathers was a Topanga Canyon rabble-rouser. He migrated to New York in 1981 at the age of 17 to pursue painting and was noticed by Andy Warhol, who organized Mathers’ first solo show in 1983. Soon, Mathers was showing on both coasts and in Europe. He spent the ’90s as an ex-pat filmmaker living in Ireland.
The shadow of the impending millennium brought our slippery hero back to Topanga’s own Rodeo Grounds, an infamous, idyllic art community, where he set up camp in the Airstream he still calls home (though since the community’s tragic demise, he’s moved his trailer to a Venice parking lot). Mathers has directed films, made countless paintings and drawings, and written and illustrated several comic books, including the local cult classic The Children’s Guide to Astral Projection.
These are but résumé bullet points. Mather’s real mojo is in his mind, perspective, presence, style, and above all else, his words, which he uses, through lolling leaps of intellectual gymnastics and lingual acrobatics to stretch the paradigm to its outermost limit until it’s taut and transparent and provides glimpses of the transcendent beauty and magic that are Mathers’ everyday reality. James Mathers is, hands down, the best conversation in town.
These days, Mathers, 43, is a Venice staple, flitting between his “office” (a patio table at Abbot’s Habit), and his “home” (the parking lot behind artists’ collective Cre8ivity). He is easily recognized in his signature thrift-shop suit and flip-flops, crayon in one hand, hand-rolled cigarette in the other.
Between conspiring to redevelop Lower Topanga Canyon as an Eco-Arts Park (a no-brainer for any local art institutions paying attention and looking to invest in the community) and working with his cohorts at the Psycho-Iridescent Space/Time Agency to launch us into space with “whatever resources we can find, from the chemical binoculars of hallucinogens to standard scientific tools — rocketry, optics, semantics, linguistic tools . our neology department is especially fecund,” Mathers draws, paints, writes and “enjoys the journey.” You’re as likely to find him panhandling on Main Street as you are to see him on the red carpet at a celebrity-studded film premiere. Mathers embodies the incongruity of Los Angeles, which he laughingly describes as “the narcissistic wound of the planet — a beautiful vacuum where anything is possible, and nothing has any value or significance.”
Sitting cross-legged on a tiny expanse of grass on a Venice sidewalk in a waning patch of late afternoon sun, Mathers launches into an inspired diatribe on the relationship between our desperation for fame and loneliness. “What if our narcissism is actually a twisted expression of our desire for community? If everyone around you acknowledges and recognizes you, is that not fame? I think it’s the ontological crisis of not being recognized in your community that drives us to seek a broader and broader form of acknowledgment in the press or on film. It’s the absence of community that has created the mechanics of the fame game. We’re consumers on that basis, we employ services on that basis, we undergo surgeries on that basis, we seek objects, possessions and properties on that basis. It is really the core isolation, the annihilation of the paradigm of community that is driving us into narcissistic bondage and ecological collapse. It’s sort of amazing. The Permian event may or may not have been a meteorite or a shift in the weather, but our extinction may actually be an outcome of loneliness.”
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“Where’s the hope?” I ask.
Mathers wrinkles his nose, grins his mad-hatter, cute-as-a-maniacal-bunny grin and says, “It’s as close as your little friend in front of you. It’s as immediate as the people who live across the street. The answer is in caring and sharing, right?”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon