“I hate the expression that you’ve got to be realistic,” says Alexander James, who is sitting in his studio. “People only say that coming from their own idea of what realism is versus another person’s. I think one person’s ideology of being realistic doesn’t have to reflect any others. A lot of people get stopped in their tracks because they believe it’s crazy to do what you want. I think if you feel strongly about something, run with it.” Over the next hour, we speak about building an enviable career in the art world, hidden family stories, his love of tailoring and future international projects.
“There was a local gangster in East London,” the 29-year-old artist muses to me over the phone from his Westbourne Park studio, “who controlled the area and everyone used to pay him for protection.” Although, initially, it sounds like he is referring to one of the Kray twins, James is relaying the story of his great- grandfather’s move to London following WWII’s end in 1945. The artist only recently learned that Henry Kaminsky – his Jewish great-grandfather – fled from Russia to London with his two brothers before setting up a hair salon in Camberwell named Henry’s. James tells me it was an “institution” in the area that attracted colourful figures ranging from local bohemian artists and actors to more, as aforementioned, nefarious types.
“He [the gangster] really loved my grandfather and never charged him for protection. He threw his birthday party in the salon, which is quite hilarious. There was a bar at the back where they used to drink.” I remark on how fascinating it must be to learn about such a cinematic storyline within one’s own recent family tree. “All my work is entailed within memories, experience and writing,” he says. “I learnt this story only recently and I knew it was something I needed to investigate further.” James tells me he is now working on a new body of paintings inspired by his great-grandfather.
Since beginning his art career, history has consistently been a source of inspiration. After studying illustration at London’s Camberwell College of Art, upon graduation James’s work quickly jumped in scale into more ambitious digital and three- dimensional avenues: video, sculpture, photography, collage. In 2016, just a year after graduating, he had a solo show titled These Colours Don’t Run at Carousel London. Incorporating an array of differently-made works in one setting, it explored how the enduring influence of old spaghetti western films shaped his aesthetic sensibility. Paintings on the wall contrasted desert tones alongside vivid flashes of colour. Mounted beside them were pure-white dungarees plastered with the artist’s hard-to- decipher scribbles and symbols. Complex soon named James “the young artist making waves in London”.
Shows ensued across London and Berlin. James refused categorisation, constantly experimenting with new methods and materials: from surreal photographic prints-cum-paintings to ambitious large-scale installations like 2018’s American Dream, a sprawling, dystopian assemblage of seemingly abandoned objects like bowling pins, bricks and recycled crates, towered over by a drooping American flag. A year after, his show Sharper than Razor Blades, which presented life-size human sculptures made from an array of fabrics and Americana- inspired paintings, was described by ES Magazine as among “three of the best new exhibitions in London”.
Knowing the competition between young creatives in London, and the lack of opportunities to place one’s foot on the ladder, I was curious about how he went from art school to receiving such established markers of success. How did he get to this point? “It’s interesting,” he muses. “At art school, they don’t teach you how to survive post-university. It’s very much about your process and practice, and encouraging critical conversation around your work. That’s great, but career advice is definitely missing.” There wasn’t one key turning point in his journey from Sunday painter to professional artist. “I had no idea what I was doing – no one in my family was in art – so I just started applying for residencies, meeting curators and artists, and it just escalated from there!”
Being out and about on the scene also helps, he adds. “I was always quite social, naturally, getting out and chatting to people. Having like-minded conversations with fellow creators was important. I’ve also had some great mentors, inside and outside the arts.” Scrolling through James’s Instagram feed, which has more than 30,000 followers, it is clear that he has connected with some of the most important tastemakers and creatives in London. Notable commenters range from actresses Josephine de la Baume and Sadie Frost, and artists Sonny Hall and Wilson Oryema, to young gallerist Angelica Jopling, the daughter of artist and film director Sam Taylor-Johnson and Jay Jopling, the founder of leading commercial gallery White Cube.
One post reveals James featured alongside major artists like Louise Bonnet, Lian Zhang and Larry Stanton in the most recent edition of Acne Paper, Acne Studios’ rarefied book-magazine. This is not his only foray into fashion, though. James observed to Culted in 2021 that “fashion has always been an integral part of my life”. After visiting one of his art shows that year, fashion designer Reuben Selby invited James to collaborate on his second collection, titled Clash. The all-genders show included sleeveless vests, cut-out skirts and large bags all painted by the artist, as well as a custom new print design.
When I ask about his own style – typified by his rock-star long hair and penchant for loose-fitting suits and jackets – he tells me about his enthusiasm for old-school tailoring. “I don’t just mean the ones in Savile Row. I find little gems of tailors wherever I am and I love entering their world for a moment.” Like his painting, it is the history that draws him to style. “I love materials, the history behind how they have been used in television and film,” he says, beaming. John Pearse, a fairly underground tailor in Soho, is one of his favourites. He mixes his suits with pieces from brands like Acne Studios, Gucci and Loewe, which spin on an art/fashion axis.
It was around the time of the first lockdown that James decided to predominantly focus on painting. No art exists in a vacuum, as painting is an evolving and referential force, with all artists building on each other’s experimentation and aesthetics. Talking to me about his inspiration, James mentions a few guiding lights in helping build his own language of brush and paint. “I love Peter Doig. He has this way of storytelling that’s, in an almost romantic sense, evocative of a fairytale. Also, Francis Bacon, for his ability to deal with environments in isolation that can be either uncomfortable or exhilarating. Or Albert Oehlen, for the way he oscillates between abstraction and representation.”
One of James’s recent canvases was shown at the prestigious Marlborough gallery in Mayfair, known for being one of the first British galleries to show some of the most prominent names in art, such as Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock and Paula Rego – not bad company. A painting of a hazy figure surrounded by plum, mauve and heather tones was shown alongside a piece by one of the artist’s heroes, Francis Bacon, in a show titled Love is the Devil. It was named after the artist’s 1998 biopic, directed by John Maybury, which starred Derek Jacobi as Bacon, Daniel Craig as his lover George Dyer and Tilda Swinton as Muriel Belcher, the legendary lesbian owner of Soho drinking den The Colony Room. At the exhibition, James starred in a dialogue with some of the most sought-after international artists worldwide: Kyle Dunn, Louis Fratino and Louise Giovanelli among them.
Now focusing on numerous upcoming projects, James sends me snapshots of his studio, where paintings-in-progress feature silhouetted and androgynous figures layered in heavily- applied strokes of paint against obscured, deep and shadowed backgrounds. He mentions how they distil the memorable gravitas of the “insanely mythological sculptures” at the British Museum and how the colours reference the hair and outfits in WWE wrestling. With a refined surface, and a visceral sense of motion and pathos, they nod to the artist’s influences while spearheading his own, identifiable aesthetic. James uniquely incorporates lost histories and personal memories of the past into apparitions on canvas.
I start to think about how his work might push us to consider our own families and memories. What lies under those untouched stones that might inspire us to change our own lives?
James is now working towards a show in London at the Marlborough, as well one as in Berlin, in addition to projects in Asia. Although it’s too early to reveal all the details – or perhaps, understandably, he’d like to keep them under wraps – he does disclose that they’ll likely respond to some short stories he has written. How is it working on so many projects at once? “During deadlines, it’s usually stressful and [there are] a lot of late hours. Painting is a bit like a muscle. You need to be in the studio almost every day of the week, allowing your mind to focus. Experimentation requires patience and you need to set aside time for that.”
Finally, I ask if he has any unrealised dream projects he’d like to achieve. “Right now? Honestly, I’m just really focusing on art and building, making, bettering my work,” he says. “Once I’ve pushed myself to the point of exertion, in the future it could be really nice to start collaborating with some brands on really intimate capsule collections – and not necessarily just on clothing. I’m open to everything… I think.”
Taken from issue 58 of 10 Men – ELEGANCE, BEAUTY, GRACE – on newsstands now. Order your copy here.
ALEXANDER JAMES: BUILDING A MYSTERY
Text LAURIE BARRON
Portrait DOMINO LEAHA