Have you realised that the Guggenheim museum of art has become a…chain store? If you are a little bit interested in art, you have probably known about the New York original (the flagship store?) from an early age, and the 1997 sequel in Bilbao you might know for it’s Frank Gehry-designed titanium skin that inspired a thousand copies. But now, as Guggenheim museums are popping up in such unlikely places as Lithuania and Abu Dhabi, we might have to really admit it to ourselves: Art is not an innocent, care-free field, but rather as full of intrigue, money and power as any shady business.
This would have come as no surprise to British painter James Clow, however. Bournemouth-born and educated, this artist moved to London to study at the Wimbledon college of art, and now lives and works there. His paintings dive head-on into the deeper connections and real-world pressures that affect art, with a multitude of angles and perspectives to illuminate it.
“I believe the art world is not beyond politics and is actually often colonised, or recuperated, into the frameworks of the prevailing social order, and used to propagate conservative ideologies,” he argues.
The antidote to this strangling of the art world, according to James, is in subversive spiritual themes. “Art on these themes become subversive by situating itself as distinct from the establishment…(and) transcending the social order.”
Specifically, James takes his starting point in the old masters – usually Raphael. The art of this renaissance painter is perhaps the most stereotypical there is – show his paintings to a million people and they would all agree that they are truly and unarguably pieces of art. By being so recognisable and so “pure,” James can start twisting and distorting them to find new meanings and explore contemporary themes.
For example, in “Lo Spasimo,” James takes a dramatic Rafael painting – a scene of Jesus fallen on his way up to Calvary mountain, with Mary stretching her arms out full of despair – and smacks a “half price” sticker on top of Jesus. The message is clear -“the commercial has usurped the divine’s place of predominance. It is the trite promise of a saving rather than the sacrificial suffering of the Messiah that triggers Mary’s fit of emotion.” Chaotic scenes from the U.S. Shopping event of “Black friday” should support his argument that modern consumerism “follows in the footsteps of the old religious fetishism.”
The choice of painting as a technique is also a conscious one. Painting is slow, meticulous and creates single pieces – this “sets the work against the spectacular, fast paced, self-replacing nature of digital media, the mass media and the Culture Industry.” Although the style he uses is those of the renaissance, James does admit to simplifying the techniques somewhat – he does not go as far as using the historically accurate type of glazing, for example. The result is still a slow, thoughtful production, on all kinds of media – even smartphone covers.
A well-read guy, James is quick to support his thoughts with a quote to a philosopher or writer, but in many cases it is not neccessary. Even a brief look at the modern art world will, for example, show that it’s main characteristic is indeed “spectacle” – With Damien Hirst’s and James Koons’ flashy eye-catchers catching millions in auctions. Similarly, the “tyranny of market structures” should also be something any reader in the creative field has tasted. “Throughout my education, such an emphasis was put on sales and marketing yourself, the standard route to success as an artist is unquestioningly commercial.” Seem familiar?
As his work is often very self-referential, the presence of religious themes can make one curious, but James refuses to reveal his own stance in the matter. If we know he’s a Christian, he argues, it could look as if he was making sincere religious art, and if we know he’s an atheist, it could seem very antagonistic, using religion as a negative to create criticism. “Whatever I actually believe, the work is probably more interesting kept open. Tying the paintings to my identity only limits the interpretative possibilities, something I am keen to avoid.”
He’s not sure if this type of exploration is to be his “signature” style.“I am still open to changing what I do and exploring new ideas, so essentially I don’t know how to determine exactly what my signature is.”
His up-coming project is in the same vein, however: “I’ll be working with the Chapter-house Museum in South London. This museum showcases the foundations of the historically significant , medieval monastery, Merton Priory. The museum was demolished under orders from Henry VIII and today a large supermarket stands in its place. I hope to create some work for the museum which combines the discordant spiritual and commercial uses of the site.”
And certainly, as there is enough to criticise to fill a lifetime of productivity, continuing on these themes should not be a problem for James. As he states as his goals, apart from achieving as high a level of work as he can, his hope is that he can instigate “some kind of change, whether individual or systematic.” A good and neccessary motivation in the face of what he is criticising.
Somewhat loftier, however, is his dream project of being exhibited alongside Rafael’s original paintings – we certainly wish him the best of luck!