The quality of the line in JOSEPH JAMES' work is stunningly beautiful. His cut paper "drawings" both hide and reveal information about his sources, pushing the viewer to contemplate what was there before. He shows us the complexity and mystery that can exist in a simple, repeated gesture. Joseph exhibits internationally, and his work is included in several prestigious museum collections including the Saastamoinen Foundation Collection at the Espoo Museum of Modern Art and the Vexi Salmi Collection at the Hämeenlinna Art Museum. His upcoming solo show at Galerie Anhava opens in April 2013. Joseph lives in Helsinki, Finland.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us about your history as an artist. How did your printmaking background lead to the cut paper "drawings" you make now?
Joseph James: I started my undergraduate studies at Winthrop University in South Carolina as a painting and sculpture major. I ended up switching to painting and printmaking because I felt more comfortable working in two-dimensional media. I studied new media printmaking techniques at Saimaa University of Applied Sciences in Finland and started making art full time. This led into my graduate studies in the printmaking department at The Finnish Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki.
At the academy I began to understand that the reason I liked printmaking had less to do with making prints and more to do with the process-intensive techniques. I was also looking for a way to combine my interests in drawing, painting and printmaking, and I got the idea to make some paper cuts. At first, I tried to keep printmaking part of the process by cutting on top of acrylic glass plates and printing the cut marks. As the series developed, I let go of the printing altogether.
OPP: You emphasize process when you identify your medium as "cut paper." While the objects themselves are beautiful in a purely formal way, they become more compelling to me when I think about how they were made. The cutting process is enigmatic and impressive because the lines are so delicate and varied. Is the cutting done by a computer or a machine or by hand?
JJ: The cutting is done by hand with a small hobby knife. It is a slow and meticulous process, which is extremely rewarding for me as the maker. It’s crucial to the meaning of the work that it be cut by hand. My piece The Entanglement was laser cut in steel, but the feel of this work is completely different. The meaning is also changed by the process. I would like to try laser-cutting paper and other materials at some point, but I don’t see it ever replacing the cutting by hand technique.
OPP: I agree that whether the cuts are made by hand instead of by machine significantly affects the meaning of the work. But meticulousness as a quality can be read in lots of opposing ways: patience, obsessiveness, focus, engagement, meditation. Can you expand on what the hand-cutting technique means to you, outside of the pleasure of the process?
JJ: For me it’s about opening up a channel through all of the questioning and overanalyzing that separates me from the act of creating. In other words, it is about action and creation. I’m okay with all of the opposing ways this can be read. Meaning emerges from the ambiguity of the seemingly simple, straightforward act of cutting.
OPP: Are you thinking about the source images while you cut them up?
JJ: I’m not thinking about the source image at all while I cut—just the drawing. The cutting is almost mechanical. It’s like tracing the drawing, and where the lines fall in relation to the substrate depends on that initial drawing. I often cut the piece from the backside, so it is not until after the cutting is finished that I even see what it looks like. At this point, I treat each piece like a new experience or perception. I let go of the original idea and the source material, which are really just starting points. I try to view it objectively.
OPP: What are the substrates you cut from?
JJ: I use posters, magazines and photographs, as well as fine art paper, hand-painted paper and hand-made collages.
OPP: Some pieces, like Absurdity and Outburst, are scribbles and reveal the beauty in what appears to be an unplanned line. Others, like Animal Farm or Union Camp, seem to highlight preexisting lines in found images. There's a sense of pulling out the skeleton of an image. Is there a distinctly different process for these pieces?
JJ: The main difference is the drawing process, but there are other subtle differences as well. My process is like a set of variables that I can rearrange and adjust to varying degrees. I can draw from life or not, use a source image or not, and be faithful to the image or not. I can also change the material and substrate, the number of layers, the installation and so on. With each piece I gain more experience. I learn more about myself and the work, bringing that to the next piece, too. The process is dynamic. The cutting is probably the most stable aspect of the work, but I notice that it even changes slightly from piece to piece.
OPP: I called your pieces "drawings," but they could also be talked about as sculpture when they are exhibited on pedestals or hanging in space. How do you make decisions about the installation of each piece?
JJ: The presentation of this work is very important. It was easy at first because I was learning about the behavior of the material and allowing each piece to dictate how it would be installed. With the hanging pieces, when I finished the cutting and picked them up, they just collapsed in every direction. It was a surprise at first, but I saw the beauty in the natural tendency of the paper to react to gravity and just took advantage of that by hanging it from the ceiling. The idea of showing them on pedestals came from wanting to capture the feeling of the pieces when they are lying on the tabletop being cut. I haven’t used that option since the first exhibition of this work.
I install the other works with small nails directly into the wall. I do not use frames. In this way, they interact with the space like a sculpture would. The pieces work best when there is a lot of open area around them. This makes the wall almost disappear. The pieces look like they are suspended in mid-air.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).