While an invite to New York artist Todd James’ Manhattan apartment is unlikely, you can visit his largest-ever solo exhibition of new work in Los Angeles. There’s No Place Like Home is open now through October 27 at Over the Influence, a beautiful gallery in the downtown arts district. Blending his fantastic color palette with amplified compositions, James invites you into his vision of home, a whimsical world of surreal interiors.
In James’ uniquely stylized visual language, the show features mostly large-scale acrylic paintings of rooms — from teen angst bedrooms to cozy living room spaces to late night hungry moments in the kitchen. Domestic and cartoony, his rooms are like secret places for the compulsive adolescent who finds refuge at home with their books, posters, and D&D dice — although I know plenty of adults like this, too. All the small details and bigger ideas come alive seamlessly, appearing almost animated, thanks to his bold saturated colors and perfect lines. The rooms are maybe meant to be circa 1983, but could just as easily be in 2019 now that society spends so much time in a state of stimulated pop culture mind.
Composed with great depth and inventive arrangement, the rooms are full of story, with smoking bongs, awesome poster art, haphazard chairs, magazines and unmade beds. Paintings like “Hero’s Journey,” “No Place Like Home,” and “Saturn’s Bedroom” were further partly inspired by the fact James was painting for a show in California. References to L.A.’s very own Fast Times At Ridgemont High can be found on the walls, and he points out that even the phrase “fast times” is a reference from this period, when he was about 14 or 15 years old.
As James tells the Weekly, “Some of them are things from an analog time, when there was no digital. There are a few things like cell phones that are more modern, but a lot of it is escaping back to another time and sort of my own personal nostalgia. There’s a lot of fantasy, which is like complete escapism — Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons or Heavy Metal.”
Though the rooms are not specifically autobiographical, they give the viewer a sense of James’ humor and taste. “All the bookshelves come from parts of my apartment. My wife’s a publisher and an editor and I mean, I like books too, but she’s got a lot of books,” he shares.
The fantasy lexicon runs deep in James’ artwork, and if you know his history, you know some of the symbols and figures that recur in his paintings. For this series, he related that he doesn’t start out with all his references laid out. Instead he composes the bones of the image on the canvas, and often it takes awhile to finish a painting because the references find their own way into the space, determined by what he feels in the moment or what feels right for the painting overall. His cobras, castles, paraphernalia, skulls, wizards, scorpions and female figures have connected along a personal thread throughout his paintings and installations for about 30 years now.
James became well known as REAS doing graffiti on the New York subways in the 1980s, but he’s been invested in art his entire life, raised by artists and finding an early kinship to character and cartoon culture. Favorites from his youth are Bugs Bunny, Japanese anime show G-Force: Guardians of Space, Spider-Man, Godzilla and everything Sid and Marty Krofft. These influences guided his practice and though graffiti was an outlet for these styles too, it was different.
James recalls, “When I was young I thought I would be an artist but when I was doing graffiti at first, I was doing it because it was fun and the thing I gravitated towards. But I thought it was something different in a way. I wasn’t thinking of it as a path to a career at all. A lot of times I’d be like, ‘I gotta quit, I gotta quit writing’ because there’s a crime aspect to it. It was just like a separate art related pastime that I was involved in.”
Music too is a key part of James’ process, and he admits his playlists for this work revolved around yacht rock, yes — yacht rock! He reveals, with occasional chuckles, “As I get older, I listen more to something like Gerry Rafferty and ‘Come Sail Away.’ ‘Blinded By the Light’ was huge this time around. It’s all kinds of very mellow rock. I would not have listened to Carly Simon so much if it came on the radio, but it’s the stuff that you accept later in life, that you found when you’re younger. The background radio of your youth that gets absorbed and then comes back out — and then you just express it.”
Any hetero male fantasy often includes women, and several of the paintings do feature different women James has dreamed up from legendary influences like Ralph Bakshi, Frank Frazetta and Vaughn Bode. James’ women are usually having a good time, relaxing, playing and evoking comedy; and sometimes they have thick tan lines as in “A World of Possibility.” He teases that perhaps they’re really all aspects of himself. Regardless, they’re having their own personal moments in whatever room they inhabit.
“The way Vaughn Bodē and Frank Frazetta drew women, they helped form or reinforce something in their ideal, and whatever they were drawing influenced me,” James explains. “Bodē clearly had a huge influence on graffiti, like the cartoon drawings that are done by graf writers, because his stuff has a fat black graphic outline around it and also the characters are just cool. Everything about what he made I think is cool. I gravitated to it, and Ralph Bakshi was clearly influenced by Bode. It’s all late ‘60s, early ‘70s and tied into fantasy. It was what was underground and cool when I was young and those things still hold up for me.”
Over the Influence, 833 E. 3rd St., downtown; (310) 921-5933, overtheinfluence.com; Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., through October 27; free. overtheinfluence.com/exhibitions/todd-james.