Todd James : pumps it up

Tanned, voluptuous…and furry. New York artist Todd James is making it rain cats and girls at Alice Gallery. Pussy galore!

Can colour short-circuit your brain? An affirmative answer appears unavoidable when you survey the work of Todd James. The New York-based artist creates boldly colourful, exuberantly shaped, and violently appealing images that tempt the eyes, overwhelm the mind, and subvert traditions and preconceptions. With flowing, elastic lines that can barely restrain the explosion of colour, he takes his visual universe – composed of graffiti, comics, and contemporary art – to and over the edge of good taste and common decency. Resulting in highly funny, yet unsettling and restless visions of an utterly ecstatic society (in dealing with sex, violence, and so on), caught up in the web of its desires, aspirations, troubles, and afflictions.

Colour, to Todd James, is almost like a language of its own, an attractive means coming off the canvas to communicate a subversive message. Reflection and the banal, rebellion and corporality go hand in hand. Take his Somali pirates for instance, or the latest exploit by the American iconoclast: his video for U2’s “The Troubles”, part of their Songs of Innocence. Music is a recurring theme in Todd James’s career. He has worked with Mobb Deep, Redman, Eminem, Kid Rock, and the Beastie Boys, for whom he drew the Brooklyn Dust Elephant logo when he was only seventeen. “Right place, right time, yeah. And right person for the job. I think you can often be in the right place at the right time, but you have to be capable of doing what’s required. That gave way to work with other musicians. I am a huge music fan, so it was like circling back around to a familiar place.”

Fuzzy bears
Less familiar, considering the heated arguments it gave rise to, was his design of the giant teddy bears that Miley Cyrus…well…used improperly during her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2013. “My friend Diane Martel directed that segment of the show and she called me to design the bears. The idea of creating a giant bear and crazy bear costumes seemed fun. KAWS [New York-based artist – KS], who is a friend of mine, was also branding the VMA’s that year. It was a fun way to all be a part of this kind of event. That award show is known for this type of thing, but I don’t think anyone knew how big the reaction was going to be. It was fun to be involved in something that spun out like that in a viral way, with fuzzy bears and Miley Cyrus.”

You need to twerk your way back to the 1980s to find Todd James, just a kid, spraying his moniker REAS in the New York subway system. His years in graffiti remained palpable when years later he made the transition to the gallery circuit. “Well, I transitioned from trains and graffiti into commercial art. I knew some other, slightly older guys who paved that way. For me it was also a transition from youth into adulthood, from late teens into early twenties. For about ten years I did commercial work and then I began thinking about gallery work, actually with Steve [Powers aka ESPO – KS], and the result was ‘Street Market’.” “Street Market”, a collaborative installation by Todd James, Steve Powers, and Barry McGee recreating an urban street, was a seminal exhibition in 2000, which was initially exhibited at Deitch Projects and eventually made its way to the Venice Biennale. “It was quite easy: it was all the ideas we had from both graffiti and commercial work combined into an exhibition. Kind of like a first album. After ‘Street Market’ I worked on a TV show in Hollywood [Crank Yankers – KS] for about four years, while ‘Beautiful Losers’ [a travelling group exhibition including work by artists like Harmony Korine, Shepard Fairey, Ed Templeton, influenced by popular underground youth subcultures – KS] was running, so the transition was more of a zig-zagging path.”

Here, kitty, here!
That zig-zagging is characteristic of Todd James’s gluttonous methods: fast, intuitive, and multidisciplinary. With almost complete liberty for the moment and the experience. Does he get out of his work what we get out of it? “Well, I hope so. I make things that entertain me. My work does often take me somewhere I wasn’t exactly envisioning, but somewhere better at times, somewhere new. Like looking up a hill and running up, but seeing an even better view of a valley below.”

The view at Alice Gallery will be one of the finest in Brussels the following month. There will be blood in vibrant colours, there will be messy violence, but there will also be girls and cats. Lots of them… “Where do those cats come from? You know, I never really realised that until the Ed Banger crew of Girls‘N’Cats invited me to do something. I have had cats in a lot of my work. There is a shirt I had done for Supreme years ago and then plenty of sketches and paintings as well. I had cats while I was growing up. They help to punctuate things subtly somehow, like a hidden presence.” Try that, hiding in Technicolor!

TODD JAMES: PUMP PUMP • 22/1 > 28/2, wo/me/We > za/sa/Sa 14 > 18.00, Alice Gallery, Land van Luikstraatje 4 rue du Pays de Liège, Brussel/Bruxelles, 02-513.33.07,

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