Todd James AKA REAS Interview
It’s just a few days before Todd James AKA Reas kicks of his double headers show in Australia. Monster Children and Don’t Come Galleries will see an all new collection of works from the hugely talented and renown artist this week. Here’s an interview with Todd James from a recent issue of Monster Children Magazine, the interview was conducted by SLAMXHYPE blogger Joseph Allen. Have a read.
Todd James is an artist that is not restricted to any medium. Creating cartoons and puppet shows for commercial TV, graphic design for some of music’s biggest stars such as the Beastie Boys, renowned on the street for his graffiti as REAS and presenting his fine art in museums worldwide. Each of the audiences he reaches may have little idea of the other worlds he is famous in and this couldn’t worry the artist any less. For as I found out during a conversation over iChat – Todd James is the only audience Todd James creates for.
JA: It’s Tuesday afternoon here, what time have you got, Todd?
TJ: Monday night 12:37AM
JA: Time for bed?
JA: What is a usual day for Todd James?
TJ: It’s a very off peak situation – Up at 9:00, I read emails and work on stuff, hang with the family. Bed 2-3AM
JA: Is it mostly client work or personal work these days?
TJ: A lot of personal now. This month it will be 90% personal, I’m finishing an animated video for my show at the end of the month.
JA: And you are living in NYC these days?
TJ: You know it. I’ve all ways lived here but was also in LA part-time for about three years a year ago.
JA: And you grew up in Manhattan?
TJ: Yeah, but I traveled around a lot. So I’d have days where I’d be out in Brooklyn, then up in the Bronx and back in Manhattan.
JA: Do you think graffiti is a good way to learn about a city?
TJ: Yeah, if you wanted to get to the trains it brought you to places you would never travel to otherwise and meet people from all over.
JA: Did you go to art school?
TJ: I went to the High School of Art and Design (Manhattan Art High School that focuses on cartooning and animation, architecture, illustration and new media, among the many notable alumni art Art Spiegelman, Marc Jacobs and Mobb Deep) which was a huge writers school in the 70-80’s and was pretty awesome to have experienced that. I took a few night courses at visual arts but I learned most of what I do by doing it.
JA: You have done a lot of commercial work, and often for music clients, how did you get into design?
TJ: Oh, that’s how i started out, music related work for the Beastie Boys and other hip hop groups, also The Source magazine when it began. My mother was doing graphic design and I picked up a few things from her but most of my work was character driven logos which were directly related to graffiti characters I had been known for doing. I was hugely influenced by Skeme, Doze, Tack etc.
JA: Are you still doing such client work?
TJ: Yeah, but it’s less graphic design and more television projects like Crank Yankers (Comedy Central puppet show based on real prank calls. The show has featured Jeff Goldblum, Jack Black and the Wu Tang Clan) and the titles for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. That was one of my favourite jobs because I am a huge fan of that show.
JA: You created the whole aesthetic for Crank Yankers – was it an easy progression to take your characters to 3 dimensions?
TJ: The puppet builders were all from Henson’s at some point. They made me look like a genius.
JA: And you have worked on 2 dimensional cartoons as well. Can you tell us about Minoriteam (cartoon programme with the tagline ‘Fighting for all people of color, except white people, unless they are Jewish’. James was co-creator and executive producer)?
TJ: That was fun but odd because I don’t really draw comic and it was based on the look of Jack Kirby’s comics. It was an education in what a master Kirby is. I can’t even look at most Marvel comics unless it’s Kirby – there’s maybe 5 exceptions. [I was] writing the ideas for episodes and coming up with characters and their look. It was all hands on deck at times.
JA: That must have been a big job, did it take a lot of time from your fine art practice?
TJ: I guess I still was making stuff and doing some shows but not focusing on that as much.
JA: Do you approach your commercial work in the same way you would your fine art?
TJ: Somewhat, but I can really do whatever I want when it’s just for me.
JA: Do you differentiate between your audiences when making the work?
TJ: I am my audience.
But I do think there’s people who only know my stuff from one place and don’t know I’ve done other things. Street market, for my part, was very much all of what I had done brought together in a exhibit – Graffiti, graphic design, ideas.
JA: And response? You have travelled a bunch with your shows, Venice, Liverpool, Denmark, how has the response differed to the work in different places?
TJ: In some of the bigger museum exhibits it’s almost like you’re disconnected. Even though there could be a crowded opening, responses sometimes come through a few days later secondhand from the curators or you overhear something while standing in the crowd. And you never talk to the general public, only the other artists and there are no curators.
JA: It’s like the more high profile the show the harder it is to reach the people which is the opposite of your work on the street – which is instant and seen by many. What’s your take on street art’s rise in the fine art market?
TJ: Well i think it’s a cool way to get people into art but I believe in longevity and presence when doing stuff on the street. Anyone posting the 6 spots they did online of some wheat paste or whatever get no love.
JA: Do you think it’s place in the fine art world has longevity or does it belong on the street?
TJ: Well that’s a case by case situation.
JA: Was there ever a danger from the law when you put the names REAS and Todd James together?
TJ: By the time I decided to do that they were fully aware that Todd James and REAS were the same guy. I had also stopped painting trains.
JA: Can you tell us about your show in London and pending book?
TJ: It’s a show of war paintings I’ve done titled Blood & Treasure at Lazarides Gallery opens in London August 28th 2008. I had begun making these [war paintings] in ’06 or ’07 and did an exhibit in Denmark at V1. The new paintings are taking what I did there further and I’m working on an extension of the paintings in the form of an animated video. The book is a 64 page hard cover book/catalog of this new work with a great introduction by Jonathan Lethem author of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude.
JA: When did the political and war imagery in your work begin?
TJ: I’d say in 06 from just watching the news. I started drawing these cartoon war machines and just coming back to it and building on these themes.
JA: Can we expect more on this theme in January for your show at Monster Children Gallery?
TJ: I will have some but I’m going to do some work based on natural disaster. Both of these things are overwhelming right now and things are a bit out of control. I did some drawings of LA on fire while i was staying there. You could be relaxing by your pool and see a huge cone of smoke and people just commuting around this stuff.
JA: Natural disaster and fire – that will be a good fit for Australia.
TJ: Is it on fire there too?
JA: Quite often. Floods and droughts also, and you know our last prime minister was a great supporter of Bush, we still have fellows coming back from the Middle East in boxes.
TJ: Yeah, well we are spreading democracy so don’t worry. You’re part of the coalition of the willing. The first guy I ever met from Australia wrote Kasino. He came to New York. He’s official.
JA: It’ll be your first time in Australia. I always like hearing how we are perceived in the media there. What ideas of Australia will you be coming here with?
TJ: It’ll be my first time there but I’ve done a few shows with Perks at his gallery (the now defunct Someday Gallery in Melbourne). I think [Australia] is seen as a wild party place – there’s that kid with the famous sunglasses who threw the party. There’s also Chopper Read, Men at Work, Crocodile Dundee, then that guy the Crocodile Hunter who was cool.
JA: You’ve had a few monographs of your work published already. And some were even self-published. Do you prefer the DIY method? Or is that just a necessity?
TJ: Doing something your self is great but I wasn’t held back or restricted so it’s not much different.
JA: That seems to be a recurring subject in this conversation – doing things for yourself. Does this mean working autonomously or do you enjoy the collaborative process as well?
TJ: Yeah I do [enjoy collaboation]. I’m used to it from doing trains. I think writers have that kind of community of collaboration. You end up doing your own painting but it’s a collaboration. Other artists not so much.
JA: Street Market was a large and on-going collaborative project for you with Barry McGee and Stephen Powers. Do you see that as a defining project in your fine art career? It certainly went a long way through America and Europe?
TJ: Yeah and it was a collaboration as well. It was certainly a defining moment but i bob and weave and this new work is becoming a new chapter. I like to keep it moving and not dwell in one thing. I feel like we killed the subject matter so hard with Street Market.
JA: Who are your main influences?
TJ: Ralph Bakshi, Peter Saul, Terry Johnson (British Dramatist). Crumb.
JA: Do you still read alot of comics?
TJ: No, i never read alot of comics
JA: Video games?
TJ: Yes!!, I play xbox, I like online gaming
JA: Next project – a Todd James video game?
TJ: No, I like talking to people while playing or listening to people its crazy to hear some of the stuff. its a window into peoples lives id never meet otherwise.
JA: Do you watch much TV?
TJ: No, the Colbert Report and Discovery Channel type stuff
JA: Do you go to many galleries?
TJ: I go a bit. Not contantly.
TJ: Yeah I want to make one but no I don’t go to see many.
JA: How about music?
TJ: Yeah always, I like metal and hip hop. I also like this yacht rock crap lately.
JA: What is that?
TJ: Like the boats. Easy-listening mellow 70s rock like Dust in the Wind, Don’t Fear the Reaper.
JA: Does being a father provide inspiration? Did the colouring book come before or after?
TJ: Way before, I’ve made 2. One in 2000 and one a year ago.
JA: So you really are working in vacuum, this work that is totally relevant on all these platforms but is totally informed from within. Is that a correct summation?
TJ: Somewhat – I’m not in a total bubble but the mediums you work in aren’t always the mediums you’re looking at. I have seen enough TV and movies, there’s not so much going on there now that interests me.
JA: What is your motivation? Why keep making art?
TJ: I guess I couldn’t tolerate not doing it
JA: Is it a therapy for you?