Into the Mirrors: Anthony James


Published September 29, 2010




“I need a deep cleanse.” These aren’t exactly the first words you’d expect to hear from Anthony James—the-35 year-old Brit sculptor who’s imprisoned chainsaws, birch trees, and a torched Ferrari in mirrored light boxes—but it’s understandable. A friend had given him a gift certificate for a facial and he needed some relaxation before his biggest show to date. Over the past five years, James has gone from a nightclub-trawling enfant terrible to one of the most in-demand contemporary artists on the block. “What it was is that there was a buzz about me, but I couldn’t afford to make my own artwork,” he says, post-facial. “There was almost like a lost seven years. I showed very heavily in 1998 in New York, but then I had trouble just paying my rent, and to build art was fairly expensive for me, and then something happened  in 2005: people started buying my art, which generated money so I could invest it back. More money means more art, right?”

Right, indeed. A student of minimalism, in particular the glossy, hallucinogenic surfaces of Donald Judd, James’s work is a meditation on space, light, and the possibility of infinity as seen through the limitless reflections of a trapped narrative meticulously lit inside a world of two-way mirrors. They’re also a ritual of sacrifice, as evidenced by his 2008 Ferrari piece and new examples of his Duchampian birch tree works, which will take over both of Patrick Painter’s gallery spaces in Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station for ΚΘ (short for kalos thanatos, or “beautiful death”). Of course, that’s really just a sample of what’s to come. With a new found purity of purpose, the now L.A.-based artist is taking his South Central studio to new heights with a series of multifaceted, polished steel, mirror, and LED-infused orbs that span 12 feet in diameter and will undoubtedly push his simulacra obsession to a whole new level. “I’m still working on it so I don’t actually know where it’s going. In order to make sure I like it I have them very highly computer-rendered. I draw it and we work it out with the engineers, etc., etc.,” he says of the work, which should be ready next year. “But I’ve never seen one of these things in completion yet, we’re still trying to do it.” Between meetings with his engineers (and that facial) James called in from L.A. to talk about the new show, his endangered fleet of fantasy cars, his new assault rifle obsession, and which phallic symbol he plans to sacrifice next. Here’s a hint: it’s got wings.

SLENSKE: How was the facial?


JAMES: Amazing, actually. Really, really good. I loved it.

SLENSKE: Great. Hopefully, you’re really relaxed and I can get all the dirt I need out of you.

JAMES: Okay.

SLENSKE: So tell me about this show.


JAMES: It’s a double show at Patrick Painter. He’s got two galleries here and he’s given me both spaces. In one of the galleries we’ve got the birch pieces, which are wood pieces and the other one is the Ferrari piece.

SLENSKE: And how did that piece come together exactly?

JAMES: What it was, you know, it was a weird thing. When I was seven I was infatuated with cars and I wanted a Ferrari so bad and when I got to 30 I could afford one so I bought myself one. I was living in the East Village in a one-bedroom apartment and I’d leave it right outside. Then one day I decided to make some art out of the car, so I took it to a birch forest in Kingston, New York and I doused it in gasoline and set it on fire. It really reflected the time I was living in during 2001 to 2006—9/11 happened, it was the destruction of our greatest things, the stock market crashed, and I enjoyed the hedonistic act of destroying something very materialistic. It exploded twice. The gas tank went up and the engine went up. I was with my assistant and we had a problem putting the car out. It was a great idea at the time until you get the actual physics of what’s going on. But we got it out.

SLENSKE: And what else is in the show?

JAMES: It’s the birch tree pieces I’m mostly known for.

SLENSKE: Those are based on Duchamp, right?

JAMES: They’re kind of based on Duchamp. What we’ve got is the trees. They resemble a contradiction between like a Stanley Kubrick and Gustav Klimt. It’s Gustav Klimt mourning the way they’re lit, it’s this endless birch forest, but everything is in too much symmetry. You know, there’s something menacing there. What first appears to be beautiful is actually quite menacing in a Kubrick way.

SLENSKE: How’d you find this style originally. It seems like you were more focused on neon work before this?

JAMES: Yeah, but I’ve been kind of fascinated with simulacra and simulation. I like sci-fi, I like beauty, so it’s just a contradiction of what my taste was, you know, and I came up with this. It’s like a happy medium between them both. This is basically simulacra and simulation.

SLENSKE: And how does that apply to the Ferrari. Did you just want to get rid of it?

JAMES: No, not at all. That Ferrari only had 6,000 miles on it. It was worth $160,000. It was the most expensive thing I’d ever purchased in my life by far, but it was basically… the birch trees came about because of the idea of sacrifice and in ancient Greece they used to use the birch forest as a temple for the sacrifices to Venus. So I got the thing that was most precious to me and I sacrificed it and the birch tree was a sacrifice, it’s what we give up for ourselves. We don’t have an easy lifestyle. I can guess what your lifestyle is and it’s not that fucking easy to do what you do. You’ve given up a lot to do what you do and that’s what these pieces are about.

SLENSKE: If you believe the stories written about you it seems like you were running around a lot like some party boy before you were able to ratchet things down and get really focused on the work. Is that accurate?

JAMES: Yeah, kind of. But I got picked up [by a gallery] when I was 19. I came from a very working class background and then I went to St. Martin’s and when I was there I met one of the biggest gallerists in London, top three anyway. I don’t want to mention the party thing to tell you the truth but you know I did do that and it’s also the truth. From the ages of 23 to 28 I did nothing but fucking destroy my liver and burn the cartilage out of my nose.

SLENSKE: I heard you completely missed some big appointment with Mary Boone in those days?

JAMES: Yeah, I stood her up, but it was an absolute accident. But I did stand her up and it’s a shame because she actually seems like a really nice woman. I did arrive, a day-and-a-half late.

SLENSKE: But that wasn’t party-related?

JAMES: No, I just forgot about it.

SLENSKE: Was there something different about the practice at that point?

JAMES: You know it is about focus, and it is about dedication to your subject, and stuff. I don’t know if I approach it differently now, I’m just better at what I do now. Now I understand myself a little bit better. I’m just a better artist now. I wouldn’t recommend being an artist in your 20s because it’s actually very hard. I don’t see any younger artists that make anything interesting. This is an old man’s game and I don’t mean to be condescending.

SLENSKE: How did you first get into making art?

JAMES: I had a real talent for portrait painting, like life-drawing, still lifes. I could represent things very accurately, and I had an imagination that could expand on that. It was the only thing I was really good at, and I wanted to go to university because my friends were going to university. And when I went to school I was obviously one of the most gifted at drawing there. And then every level you go up you get better at it. To answer your question simply: it’s the only thing I know how to do. It’s the only thing I understand.

SLENSKE: How would you say this work differs from what you were doing directly out of St. Martin’s?

JAMES: Well, at St. Martin’s I studied fine art painting and what I’m doing now is sculpture. I do paint now and then. I made a series of paintings two years ago with the Ferrari piece and i donated some to this AIDS foundation in New York, but when I was at school I studied fine art painting, but by third year of it I was making basically sculpture. I graduated in the wrong subject because my interest has changed and I moved to New York immediately after that and from then on I only made sculpture basically.

SLENSKE: And what were you focusing on when you first moved to New York?

JAMES: I was into minimalism. It’s like poetry. You’re trying to say the most profound thing in the smallest amount of words and that’s what I was into back then. I still think I’m in it. Only now instead of a five-line poem, I’m doing ten. It’s still the same thing to me, anyway. You are what you are, you make whatever is natural to you.

SLENSKE: What made you want to go to L.A.?

JAMES: I’ve had a place here for four years and I’ve always liked the L.A. art scene. My wife loves L.A. so I got her a place in L.A. and then the irony of it is I find it hard to conform to L.A. and that broke up my marriage. But L.A. has an amazing art scene. Some of my favorite artists like Charles Ray, Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, they’re all L.A.-based and I’ve always had an obsession with these guys. There’s this sincerity in their work that’s different from other cities so I was very happy to be a part of this scene. I wanted to be a part of the L.A. thing and now I have a great life here.

SLENSKE: And where are you setup in the city?

JAMES: West Hollywood. The studio is in South Central. I have two studios: one, where the work is made, and that’s in South Central; the other studio is a place just for display, which is an aircraft hangar at Santa Monica Airport. You can’t really ask the clients to come to South Central [LAUGHS]. But I’m quite happy to work there because it’s where I was brought up.

SLENSKE: What do you mean by that?

JAMES: Well, it’s just an easier way to work. When I employ my assistants—obviously I don’t make this stuff on my own, right?—I employ like six or seven people, but I don’t want people with an art background, I want amazing technicians. I want people who know how to weld, you know, I want people to do the job. I will supply enough art, I just want people who are technically brilliant enough to pull off the impossible. You know, it’s very hard to make what we do. There’s only a few people who are capable of doing this and it just so happens I spotted this in someone in South Central.

SLENSKE: How did you find these guys?

JAMES: It was quite luck to tell you the truth. I was working with this company called Carlson & Co. that made all of this large scale work and unfortunately they went bankrupt. They also made Jeff Koons’s work. They’re very, very good and I was in a conversation with someone and they’re like, “Danny, you know, they hired Danny to do the metal polishing.” And he’s down in South Central, so that’s where we do it now. I don’t know how this interview is going, but I’m telling you the truth.

SLENSKE: I kind of like where it’s going. It’s going in the right direction. So are you going to work on more car pieces?

JAMES: Yeah. I’m really interested in space. All the work is about space. I’m making like mirrored balls, and we’re basically producing infinity, so I’m playing with space and controlling it inside of the box. You can see in, but you can’t see through, so you’re creating a different universe. So the new work is going to be about universes. It’s spherical shapes. I actually just made them. But, yeah, I am going to do another car piece, I think.

SLENSKE: So is there something beyond the boxes?

JAMES: Yeah, the new stuff is for next year. What they are is—how can I describe it?—what it is is like a geometric shape that is somewhat spherical, maybe it’s a 22-sided shape, which resembles a bit of a globe, and it’s monumental in scale. It’s 12 feet high and like in diameter as well, so it’s got a very big presence, but when you look at it, it’s very beautiful as well, and what happens there’s an optical illusion when you look at it. All the inside surfaces are lit and also in two-way mirror it reflects completely flat when you look in so you just see an open plane. It’s just endless.

SLENSKE: What’s it made of exactly?

JAMES: It’s steel, highly polished steel, glass, two-way mirror, and LED lights.

SLENSKE: What are you calling it?

JAMES: Don’t know yet. A title it so hard. Of course it’s going to have a title, but when it’s still being made it’s like your child, your baby. You have ideas for a name for your kid, but until you actually look in their eyes you don’t know what they’re really called. It’s God’s gift. You get inspiration from a different realm.

SLENSKE: Where’s this new work coming from?

JAMES: It’s just an evolution of what I was doing before. I’m doing chaos and creation, that’s what it seems like I’m doing.

SLENSKE: So instead of an infinite inward space this is an infinite outward space is a sense?

JAMES: Exactly that. Well done.

SLENSKE: So when you’re not working, what are you up to in L.A.?

JAMES: You know what, this is all I do. I mean that for real. I got into shooting recently. I want to make a body of work about guns.

SLENSKE: Where do you shoot?

JAMES: We shoot out on a range out on the 15. I have a guy who‘s a gun person. I don’t know much about guns but I have an infatuation about them as well, because again it’s a bit of a phallus, same as the cars, same as the chainsaw series I did.

SLENSKE: What kinds of guns are you shooting?

JAMES: I just bought a bunch of AK-47s.

SLENSKE: The alpha.

JAMES: It’s a political statement. We have AR-15s as well, and both of them are going to be used.

SLENSKE: In a piece?

JAMES: Yeah, so we have AR-15s and AK-47s.

SLENSKE: I can’t believe they let you have those. What’s it like to shoot them?

JAMES: The AR-15 is very precise and very accurate and it’s a very well-balanced weapon. The AK is a little bit more clumsy but it’s just like point and shoot. It’s like the most sold assault rifle by 90 percent because it is the most reliable and it’s designed for warfare.

SLENSKE: It almost seems like your next piece should involve a fighter jet or a tank or something.

JAMES: Oh my god, I want to get an F-16 so badly. So badly. And that’s what I will do once we get a few of these shows out of the way.

SLENSKE: That would be pretty amazing?

JAMES: And I’ll do it exactly as same as the car, but better. Don’t say better [Laughs]. But it will be the same as the car piece in the way it’s displayed, where it will appear to be floating in like an infinite field. But I want an F-16 real badly.