Whatever James Joyce—no, not that one—has done, it’s always been big. He began his career as a graphic designer, soon shifting to illustration to land clients like The New York Times and Nike. His studio artwork is innately bold. His art pokes fun at cultural behemoths, like the classic yellow smiley face or Facebook.
And his recent exhibition at Dismaland demonstrates his position on the front line with other subversive artists. James Joyce makes something new from our cultural white noise.
Rachel Cassandra: It seems like you’ve shifted entirely from design to art at this point. Describe the transition.
James Joyce: I’ve always had a massive interest in contemporary art and I finally got to a point in my career where I felt comfortable enough to make a leap. I’ve shifted before from graphic design to more illustration, and now, into art. I think it’s the natural progression of being an artist or creative individual. You’ve just got to keep things interesting. If I were doing the same thing for twenty years, I’d probably be pretty bored and churning out crap as a result.
I was showing the Like paintings to a graphic designer friend of mine in New York recently and the first thing he said to me was, “You’re a typographer at heart, aren’t you?” So, I still do have an appreciation for all of that stuff.
Can you tell me about the show you just finished?
I was exhibiting in Banksy’s new show, Dismaland in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare in England. I had a large video installation piece titled Perseverance in the Face of Absurdity in the first gallery. We built a large circular screen and projected a rotating face onto it. All the elements of the face tumble around as the disc rotates. Banksy used my original image for the cover of the program, too.
There is a dynamic visual vocabulary in your work. Often you take powerful visual icons, twist them, and combine them with popular phrases. How do you make those choices?
I like the idea of tweaking something slightly and giving an entirely new meaning or feel about it. For instance, the yellow face, an image that’s been around since the 1950s: how can I play with something as iconic as that and make it my own, in a way, so it becomes something else? It has an entirely different meaning from its original state, yet you still recognize what it once was. I like the idea of subverting cultural icons, or playing with the language of the culture. The tweaks seem really simple and slight but, in fact, are quite fundamental changes to something and give it an entirely different meaning or context.
In a lot of my work, I’m interested in words or phrases. I’m constantly writing stuff down. I’ve got a very long list of words I’ve collected over time—just things I hear, nonsense phrases, or those in-between words which, when isolated, you think, ‘That’s a strange phrase.’ For instance, the Oh No paintings I’ve done. Symmetrically, it’s quite a beautiful thing to look at. The two O’s mirror diagonally, and the N and the H are similar to each other. As a graphic piece, it’s nice, visually, in an iconic way. In a different context, it could be quite a negative expression; it usually means disaster or something. But when you isolate it and present it as a large painting, there is a humor about it. I enjoy the absurdity of taking the time to compose and paint it. I did some screenprints years ago titled This, This, This, and This. When you isolate those phrases and think about them, they don’t mean anything. They get lost in the language and people don’t notice them. When you draw attention to them, you realize, ‘This actually is a really odd phrase. It doesn’t mean anything.’
A lot of my ideas start with words, something I’ve jotted down and then looked at afterwards. Things might start happening visually when I look at a word, or it might trigger an idea. A lot of the time I’m probably writing down complete shit, but other times, it can be quite insightful, something interesting. But if you don’t write it down, you forget, so, even if it’s the stupidest thing, I tend to write it down.
Tell us a bit about the physical process of your paintings.
It’s all hand painted, but the final execution almost looks perfect. Only when you look very closely do you see traces of human mistakes, slight wobbly bits. But I think it’s quite interesting to see, on closer inspection, that it’s not printed, or done by machine or anything like that.
In terms of the process, I mask off each letter, then do a few coats of paint on each color. Then I peel off, re-mask. I keep painting, peeling off and re-masking it. It’s a long process, which belies the simplicity of the image. It’s the same with the face paintings as well, which are gloss painting on wood particle panel. Because they’re gloss paint, you’ve got to allow 24 hours between each coat. Years ago, I was a graphic designer, where obviously a lot of the work is created on screen and then printed. This is different. Most of the artwork is created on computer first, compositionally. But then, often, I’m going back to painting, which is an ancient process.
There’s a lot of image and word repetition in your body of work. For example, the dismantled smiley face shows up in multiple pieces. Is that part of an unfolding process or does each feel like a separate exploration?
I originally did the clown-face paintings probably eight years ago, on a flyer for a club night in East London. Not exactly as it is now, but something similar. Things like that I’ve revisited because I suddenly realize, in the right context, it becomes art. When you make it out of a certain material and a certain size, conceptually, it’s a strong thing. It holds up.
A lot of the ideas I have, they have a life. You can do various iterations of them, and they can continually unfold. Like, imagine that face piece: if you rotate that all the time, it’s the piece I’ve done for the Banksy show. Those faces can fall in any number of places. Obviously, some don’t look right compositionally if you freeze them, but there are many ways you could compose that image. Perhaps there’s a better way to do it than I’ve already done it.
I like the idea of an ongoing series. They’re all quite open in that way. The Like paintings, for instance, they can go on forever. I can do as many iterations of that as I want, but each one is an original. There’s a life to it that can carry on, which doesn’t stop with one painting. It can go on forever, really, if you want it to.