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Anthony James’ Water Series

Anthony James’ newest works are rigorous experiments in paradox. The Water series paintings are anything but pure and elemental. It is the mixed and contradictory materials, techniques, and concepts that give these artworks their compelling hold over the viewer. The oppositions reconciled to create the uncanny effect of moving liquid stilled are many: centuries-old fine art hand skills and a high-tech machine, gesso and urethane, linen and motorcycles, the painterly and the photographic, van Eyck and Yves Klein. The work is dense with art historical references, beginning in the early fifteenth century with fine Belgian linen stretched taut and painstakingly coated with thin layers of gesso over a period of days, polished repeatedly to the smoothness of glass. When the paint is prepared, tone and hue are refined to create a set of graduated shades. Rather than crushed pigments and oil however, James uses Deltron automotive paint, a product that promises a factory finish. The original manufacturer of a gessoed canvas could be in Renaissance Bruges so this discrepancy of materials is trenchantly absurd. The paint is airbrushed across the canvas, an aerosolized burst applied in sweeping arcs. The different shades are layered, working from dark to light. The propulsion of wet on wet industrial enamel in a tone-gradient sequence creates the illusion of texture, of a streaming spray of droplets. The surface of the canvas takes on the appearance of liquid on glass, with each tiny bead and tear appearing to be elaborately contoured and volumetric when in fact the surface is silky flat. James has noted that the greatest impact of the illusion comes when the viewer touches the painting and the perception of texture is proven false. Airbrushing is intended to conceal and perfect and here it scatters flaws. The oldest trope of European painting is the victory of artifice over nature or the creation of a facsimile more entrancing than life. James’ Water series does this with elaborate material complexity at a time when mimesis has been fully dematerialized by the digital.

The silver Water paintings are particularly conceptually rich because of the parallels to photography’s grayscale. Not only does the imagery appear to have the opticality, the infinitely fine detail, of a camera’s view, the surfaces of the paintings have the sleekness of a photographic print. It is significant that James achieves these effects through various tactile, tangible processes, including historical, preindustrial ones. The work of Vija Celmins and Kim Tschang Yeul comes to mind as performing a similar reversion, but James’ work is more ambiguous about the separation of machine and hand, synthetic and sincere. The Water paintings aren’t returning to tradition, they’re colliding past into present, which seems apt for an artist who connects Kenneth Anger’s KustomKarKommando to Apelles and Zeuxis.

This work is chimerical, with the full meaning of that term as something both composite and fantastical. James has long been interested in ideals, such as Platonic geometry or the quiet order within nature. At the same time, his work opens outward to the viewer and therefore accepts the entanglements and dissonance of our moment. Purity is an illusion. The timeless, cleansing rain evoked by James’ paintings is artificial. The viewer can encounter the work through a meditative fascination with its lucid intricacy – the eternal and universal behavior of water. And the aesthetic pleasure of this is intense. But to read it as only beautiful or mystical is to miss the logic of contradiction that gives the work its conceptual strength, the spray of toxic industrial paint onto an object recognizable to any old-master artist’s apprentice.

Therefore, in a larger sense, this work presents an argument for combination and exchange over homogeneity and conformity. James’ new mode of painting can be read as a critique of easy simulation, of virtuality, in relation to both traditional illusionism and the digital. By layering contrasting material processes to create a seeming unity, a surface of streaming water, these works insist on the real over the hyperreal and on the assembled, heterogeneous, contested nature of that reality.

-Rachel Baum