FEATURE///TODD JAMES (AKA: REAS): THE SUPERTOUCH INTERVIEW

August 27, 2008  |  art, Feature, Graffiti, London, NYC, Street Art

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On the eve of the opening of "Blood & Treasure," TODD JAMES' solo exhibition of new war-themed paintings at the starmaking LAZARIDESGALLERY in London this Friday, August 29th, we sat down with the New York-based artist, animator, and new dad for an in-depth discussion on the state of the nation. And a bunch of art stuff too. READ ON:reasportrait.jpg
Ladies Love Cool Todd James...

Your new work is centered on the theme of war. Why do you think modern artists are so hesitant to address this theme in their work when the Vietnam war, for example, inspired an entire countercultural wave of creativity in protest.
I think some people actually have been, but maybe there hasn’t been as much as you would think there should be, considering how insane the state of things has become with the war and the lies of this administration. I guess some artists just don’t want to deal with the possible backlash. James Powderly of the Graffiti Research Lab was just detained in Beijing for trying to do some kind of pro-Tibet laser stencil, and the Democrats just built a detention center for any protesters at their upcoming convention, so what does that tell you? But we do have TV shows like the Colbert Report and the Daily Show nightly, so I think that protest is still alive somehow.

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Obama's down in the polls, you think this guy has a chance or have we reached a point of total self-destruction as a society?
Anything’s better than the criminals we’ve had in there for the last eight years. But whether he gets in or not, where we are at as a society is slipping.

You're still referred to as a so-called "street artist" for your earlier years spent as a graffiti artist. Do you feel any connection to that term in describing your work? Is there another term you think more aptly describes your art?
I feel a connection to it in my body of work from the subway days to the Street Market exhibit, but I don't define myself as someone who works in the street. Artist is a better term. But it doesn't bother me; sometimes it's appropriate with regards to where I came from.

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What constitutes great art?
Something super skillfully done or slapped together effortlessly. For me personally, I like art that influences other art or changes things, like Rakim’s "My Melody" or Tack’s SAB KAZE car. Art that is the first ripple in the pond, art that expands outward. There are so many exceptions though, and it’s a subjective thing. That’s a tough question. It could be a kid’s Batman drawing on the sidewalk in chalk.

While you can work in a variety of styles, your primary aesthetic is purposely rough, incredibly so sometimes. What are the primary influences for you in this department?
Well personally, the way my drawings look was something I was running from for a long time. In kindergarten I could never color within the lines in coloring books, I always ended up breaking out onto the page. When I was doing trains early on or even trying to draw cartoon characters I really learned to be as neat as possible, and when you’re in your early teens that kind of order and attention to detail is important, but I eventually just accepted my default style--which is quick and loose and sometimes rough and instant. In the influences department there were certain artists whose work was more like a reinforcement: seeing them made me feel OK about just letting go. Artists like King Terry, Basquiat or Blade.

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What modern artists are you currently excited about? What artists do you see yourself most connected to, stylistically?
I have a long list, but here’s a short one: Chris Johanson, I recently saw some of what he's making. He's going big for a new show here in New York and I'm looking forward to it. KAWS has also been working on paintings for a few shows and I've been by to see what he's up to. I'm excited by stuff I saw this year from Dash Snow, Dear Raindrop, Devin Flynn, and kids who make animated gifs on line. I feel stylistically connected to King Terry, and somewhat to Peter Saul, and maybe Ralph Bakshi.

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The underground art world has gone through a lot of change in the last 5 years with the so-called "lowbrow" school being replaced by street art as the dominant force with an obsessive buying public looking for the next Banksy. What do you make of all this? Is it legit?
I think when ever people are looking for the next Banksy or the next who ever they often really just want a duplicate. It’s best to just search for some thing original and completely different. I don't know if street art has replaced anything, the best of the lowbrow artists continue to show. But “Street Art” or “Post-Graffiti” has certainly become a topic of interest. It has introduced art to younger people and a general public who might not have thought about art otherwise. That’s positive. But on the other hand you have people claiming it who really never did shit in the street. The writer in me says if you didn’t have some longevity in the street, or didn’t make an impact with visible street work that penetrated the public consciousness, then you shouldn't strike the pose of "street artist." With the internet and magazines and other media you have a frenzied need for content, and more and more credit being given before it’s earned and a less critical view. All of a sudden everyone’s great, everyone’s “street,” and there's no context and it becomes a mess.

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Corporate co-option of the underground art world has reached an all time high with nearly every beverage, car, and shoe company releasing an artist series of some kind. Has this hurt the scene? Is the artist collab dead? Does anyone even care anymore?
What scene are we talking about? Though everything seems to have been co-opted I’m not sure what’s popping up and that’s probably good--whatever it is let it stay off the radar. Maybe everything’s eaten itself for real. We are the "culture people," invite us to dinner and we will get inspired by your soccer ball, or not.

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What are you most compulsive about in life?
Drawing.

As an animation artist raised on the golden age cartoons of the '50s – '70s, what's your opinion of the state of modern animation? As an independent animator you know how hard it is getting any quality product created in the current corporate entertainment environment. Is there any hope left for the animation industry? Cartoons used to be funny, what happened?
I've done animation but I definitely don't consider myself an animator. I think the quality of the actual animation has become shit because it costs too much to do it well I guess, and the technology has afforded cheats that never match up to hand done frame by frame animation. John Kay opened up the doors and made animation fun and funny again in the ’90s with “Ren and Stimpy” and energized animation again. Then “Beavis and Butt Head” came along and were great, as well as “The Simpsons” and I like “South Park” a lot. I love “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and I got to work on the theme song animation with my friend Devin Flynn, that was a golden achievement for me. I think these different shows are 100% different than each other but they all come from individuals with strong vision. “Ren and Stimpy” is the only one that fits in with the classic Warner Brothers animation lineage. CG animation has kind of killed the traditional stuff but Pixar makes some cool movies. Things change. I think there a funny cartoons still, but just not the same kind of thing.

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What modern cartoons do you like? Does Spongebob suck?...
I like the cartoons I just mentioned, and there’s a lo-tech, stripped-down animated zine called “Duffed Out” that I like. The guy who makes it is angry about stuff like gentrification and cultural co-opting and just everyday annoyances, which drive what he's creating. Anger can be the best motivator. Dora the Explorer sucks, Sponge Bob was at least made by talented people but I never got into it.

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What animation projects are you working on these days?
I just finished a 2-minute animation for my show at Lazarides that opens the end of this month. I'm going to make another soon I think.

You're a new dad, what's changed for you in the last year? Do find your attitude is different? Are you going to let your kid watch modern cartoons or are you going to force feed her the good stuff on DVD?
Well, no TV for a few years, but I will show her good cartoons eventually, but I'm not sure if I'm going to censor stuff she wants to see. I'd like the option to get Elmo off of every fucking kid’s item he appears on though, which is everything. He's even on diapers.

What's funny these days?
This:

Are happy people liars?
No.

If you weren't an artist what would you be doing?
Who knows?

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