PRINT January 2004

Debra Singer on Gareth James

GARETH JAMES SAYS HE WANTS TO CREATE OBJECTS that possess the “complexity of a bent spoon.” That statement, like James’s art, reveals a deadpan humor that masks surprising depth. It’s an apt metaphor, too, for someone who refers to his artistic practice as a “topographical system”—a continuous flow of recurring ideas about labor, failure, the politics of property, and a cultural complex dominated by global capitalism. A Welsh artist who grew up in London and lives in New York City, James explores these concepts through sculptures, installations, publications, and miscellaneous hard-to-classify activities. Connecting these diverse practices is a consistent attitude combining wit and pathos.

One primary focus has been works made from white paper and black marker that oscillate between drawing and sculpture and range from postcard-size dioramas to immersive environments. These works’ loose, cartoonish outlines evoke an affectionately pathetic, almost comic sensibility that belies their underlying sophistication. In most cases, their complexity derives from James’s self-imposed challenge: to create three-dimensional forms from a single sheet of paper. Consequently, the construction process becomes part and parcel of the sculptures’ irony, akin to a send-up of romantic notions of artistic struggle.

The content reinforces their humorous underpinnings. For example, The Department of Finding the Strength to Carry On, 1997, is a small paper maquette of an imaginative cross between a mundane office cubicle and a tropical desert island. James’s sculpture of a hospital gurney, part of Patent Palace, 2000, sags in the middle from its own weight, requiring real wooden crutches beneath its base to support it. A wry commentary, if you will, on the ailing state of art, the gurney also exemplifies how James’s paper works have lately assumed darker undertones, depicting references to injury, violence, and disaster. The results are a bit Virilio-meets-Beckett, merging speculation on the generative potential of the “accident” with the need to persist despite absurd circumstances. Often exhibited alongside the paper sculptures are the intricate templates James designed to build them, which can seem like maps of fantastical locations, whereby the lines initially used to demarcate folds and cuts become boundaries delimiting real estate. The templates, in this way, riff on the notion of formal properties, making evident the sculpture’s structure while providing an implied story line.

Narrative transposition is engaged in other works as well, such as an artist’s book consisting of bizarre anecdotes written by hand-“correcting” published exhibition reviews from an arts magazine (renamed Polieze in the spirit of double entendre). James appropriated the book’s title, Kill the Idiots (1998), from graffiti he documented that reversed the terminating s. He borrowed this coyly self-implicating statement again for his participation in the 2003 Havana Biennial, arranging for the phrase to be anonymously painted onto scaffolding as a protest against the hypocritical politics that complicated mounting the exhibition in Cuba and prevented many artists, including James, from traveling there.

James’s iconoclasm has been more extreme. For his 2001 exhibition at American Fine Arts, titled “wRECONSTRUCTION,” James’s fictional alter ego, Storm van Helsing, a European color theorist and curator, closed down the gallery. Van Helsing did, however, create an installation—walls painted different store-bought colors with ridiculous names: Just beyond Deep Forest, next to Golden Laughter, was Chelsea Prize (a gorgeous, saturated red). Invited guests could access the vibrant potpourri only by making appointments to talk with Storm (a role played by both James and the gallery’s late owner, Colin de Land) about the possibilities and limitations of running a gallery within a commercially driven art world. Van Helsing succinctly summed up his resistant position: “Just because you can, . . . doesn’t mean you should.” Looking ahead, let’s hope James will.

Debra Singer is associate curator for contemporary art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, where she is currently coorganizing this year’s Whitney Biennial, which opens in March.