What I’m Reading: Artist Grey James

Grey James is making art that feels vital and forthright and timely, and he’s doing it out of muted colors, heavy shadow and ambiguity. This sounds, I admit, a little improbable, or at least counterintuitive, in an age that’s fascinated with installations like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors (and taking selfies in front of said installations). And yet I can’t look at his Redux series without taking the measure, each time, of the way his judicious use of color manages to shock the eye.

Grey James, Redux 6, 2017 

Maybe more improbably still, this aesthetic, and this subject matter, have preoccupied James for years now. A 2016 show at Bert Green Fine Art in Chicago was titled “Next,” and represented new work from James in tandem with “a curated selection of works by Jen Heaslip titled ‘Before.’ Heaslip, as Grey James previous persona before his transition.” Certainly artists’ awareness of what they’re driving at varies, as does their honesty about that process. But at the close of a 2009 show at Edgar Varela Fine Arts in Los Angeles, James – then Heaslip – provided one of the most candid, mordant assessments I can recall reading from an artist: “I have no idea why I paint. I have no idea why I paint what I do. I’ve been painting the same thing, the same set of ideas and by the same means for over twenty years (you’d think after that amount of time I’d be a little better at it): Naked guys standing there doing nothing…I still have no idea why the ‘Nothing,’ but I assure you, there’s a lot going on in Nothing.”

The process of becoming is open-ended, or it can be if you refuse to let yourself calcify, if you keep acknowledging your weaknesses and shortcomings. None of that’s to say we’re perfectible. Just that self-satisfied is a dangerous and compromised state. Yet it’s not that James is demanding that he be allowed self-satisfaction as much as the right to wake in the morning and make a declarative statement of his identity, and not have it met with disagreement, disapproval or disgust. At times, James’s portraits seem like perfect studies in self-consciousness – the shadowy figure, aware he’s never quite viewed whole, over time wounded by the piecemeal appraisal that focuses so thoroughly on one facet of his identity, of his self. And so we get the almost wholly hidden figure out Untitled(DO2) on one hand.

Grey James, Untitled (D02), 2015

On the other, we have nudes that carry the force of an imperative, as in Untitled(EO1) or Pink Jerk Off, as if to both assert his identity and satisfy the eternally intrusive.

Grey James, Pink Jerk Off, 2017

Untitled(D01) contains what looks like a nod to Basquiat, with the bold text overhead reading “BOY” and a crown above it making it hard to imagine a way of summing things up more concisely.

Grey James, Untitled (D01), 2015

And those twenty-plus years of circling these themes, these images? That enduring fascination has an almost visionary aspect, and the humility- “ you’d think after that amount of time I’d be a little better at it” – belies a substantial and complex body of work that might double as a visual diary of those years in James’s life. Earlier this year, he took part in a New York Times spread called Transgender Lives: Your Stories. In the space of about 300 words, James went from the personal – “25years ago my mother said to me, ‘I don’t feel as if I should have to look at you any longer.’ I thought, That can be arranged” – to the broader, cultural view, tackling everything from the obstacles to transitioning, to the harm done by strict standards of passing within the trans community. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to read those thoughts and locate,within James’s work, a response to living with the disconnect between who he is and who the people in his life have allowed him to be.

The more I look at James’s work, and the more I think about its roots and implications, the more I think of how the writer Aleksandar Hemon ends his essay, “The Lives of Others.” Hemon writes, that, when asked what he is,

I am often tempted to answer proudly, ‘I am a writer.’ Yet I seldom do, because it is not only pretentiously silly but also inaccurate –I feel I am a writer only at the time of writing. So I say I am complicated. I’d also like to add that I am nothing if not an entanglement of unanswerable questions, a cluster of others.

I’d like to say it may be too early to tell.

What would Grey James say to the question? Maybe instead of, “it may betoo early to tell,” something on the order of, “I’ve been trying to tell you all along.” Then again, that’s maybe too glib. He, too, might say it may be too early to tell, in the sense that there’s still time yet for him to assume his full dimensions as an artist and a man. Looking at the energy in his new work certainly gives me that hope. 

The great photographer Ernest C. Withers said, “Pictures tell the story,” and it seems to me that Grey James is straining in that direction as well. I say straining in that direction, because there’s still story left for James to tell, and talent and determination with which to tell it. He’ll have new work out soon, at the LA Art Show in late January (23-27, at a booth hosted by Bert Green Fine Art) and in a solo show at Bert Green Fine Art in Chicago, starting in March. Make a point of heading to his site for a preview of that work. And take a look below at what he’s been reading in 2018. Spoiler alert? He’s not a bad book critic either. His thoughts on The Middlesteins were right on the mark, and my wife and I both read it since his recommendation:

I am currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I am reading it because there was some FB challenge making the rounds asking for a person’s 7 favorite books and two people on my page had it on their list. So I gave it a shot. I’ve not historically been much into living writers and know nothing about what is being written these days, so I occasionally peruse things like “top 50 current novels” lists or “best new books” lists and see what repeats.

Of this system, this past year I’ve most enjoyed The Middlesteins byJami Attenberg. Well presented, well-written, acute observations,honest and sad in an is-what-it-is sort of way – all good things.

Outside this system, my favorite book this past year has been Calypso by David Sedaris. I like all his books, but for some reason this one really resonated.  Maybe because we are both getting old and beginning to deal with the bodily surprises that accompany this -none too swell, so far – maybe because of reading about the stories of his father soon after my own father died and really getting the accuracy of what you can and can’t do or change or be.  Either way, what I appreciate most about his writing is how unapologetic it is in its take on it all.

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