Jenny Cusack talks to London-based Canadian artist Nathan James about his brand of “pessimistic pop art”
The term “Pessimistic Pop” is an interesting one and it lies at the heart of Nathan James’ work, blending the iconic style of American pop art with a bleak, lonely and overwhelming sense of hopelessness. The industrialised Canadian town of Hamilton, Ontario can take credit for these dark motifs, the place James grew up in before heading to the bright lights of Toronto. After spending most of his life there, he’s now based in London because, “London is…well, London.”
James’ body of works titled Riff Raff carries the concept in a robust, character-led narrative. Experimenting further with these ideas, his solo pop-up project Creepshow has taken a vibrant blend of modern imagery, layering and then stamping it with his signature cartoon aesthetic. Talking with Port ahead of the show’s launch, we found an enthusiastic and energetic soul behind the work’s weighty subtext.
Jenny Cusack: Your work is very stylised, influenced by American Pop art. How did you gravitate towards this style?
Nathan James: I think it came out of my childhood interest in cartoons and comic books, like Batman, Spiderman, Archie, Mad Magazine, and Disney classics. They used to sell compilations of old cartoons on VHS tapes at the grocery store near our apartment. My mom would buy them and I would wear them out. Great stuff: Looney Toons, classic Tex Avery and black & white Betty Boop. I’ve revisited some of it recently and it’s incredible how dark they are. I don’t think you could get away with a lot of that stuff these days.
When I was a little bit older I became interested in more adult oriented work; the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle series, Predator, the Batman: Dark Knight comics (the ones the most recent films are based on), Spawn, and Robert Crumb. The first things that I remember drawing in earnest were somewhat surreal superheroes, often based on dreams. My friends and I used to take it very seriously. We’d imagine the development of our crudely drawn sketches into fully realized characters, fit for the superhero pantheon — that they, (and we,) would be famous one day. I used to have binders full of these drawings on lined paper, but I’m not sure what happened to them. That was the first visual language that I learned. It reoccurs in my work in different manifestations again and again… I guess it stuck.
Jenny: I’m interested in the idea of Pessimistic Pop as an idea and the desolate, broken nature of Riff Raff’s characters. Can you tell me about some of the characters in your paintings and the stories behind them?
Nathan: The kernel for my new work came out of my trying to connect with some negative experiences and twist them around in order make some darkly cheery paintings. I wanted to take some of the worst things in life — death, parental abandonment, unemployment, violence, drug abuse, bullying etc. — and pair them with more conventional pop iconography in order to subvert both elements and create a visual tension.I once read a thing from the liner notes of the Ramones album, Rocket To Russia. The author wrote that the genius of the band was, with songs like Rockaway Beach, their ability to make celebratory pop anthems by inverting rotten, nasty elements from their lives that were actually quite horrible in reality. With those paintings I’m trying to explore just that.
Jenny: I read that you make your own paints. Is this true? If so, how and why did you start? Why is it important for you to this?
Nathan: I do make a lot of my own paints. It’s something I’ve come to recently but I enjoy it. It adds to the alchemy of painting and a feeling of being connected to the entire process. It’s magic. A scoop of coloured dust and some honey-like liquid miraculously changes into oil paint, that in turn transform into characters codes and symbols, which construct significance in the mind of the viewer. You don’t get the same feeling from buying a tube in the shop.
Jenny: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on or are you planning to enjoy the fruits of Riff Raff for now?
Nathan: I’ve got a solo show — Creepshow — sometime (soon) in London. We’re doing it as a pop-up in a vacant retail space and the nature of these venues is that they come up last minute. I’ve been working on it since the spring. I’m very much looking forward to a week or 2 of rest once it’s all done.
Find out more about Nathan James’ work here. The venue for Creepshow is tbc