I had seen James Middleton whizzing around the hallways of Wimbledon College of Art many a time during my stint there, he would often be pushing a shopping trolley around the hallways, full of 'hopefully stretcher bars' or useful looking junk stuffs in and out of different rooms. Though we never rubbed shoulders at the time, I have become increasingly invested in his work. Regular social media posts have shown me that graduating from his BA last summer has not slowed him down. I wondered how he'd dealt with the transition of being a studenty painter over to a real studio based painting person. James' work is home to many themes and ideas like some kind of big tasty soup, but when you start to look at it all together and when you see the body of work, a string doth emerge. His works are inherently painterly and at times maybe even go in to that kind of 'painters paintings' place, but it's the turbulent and constant thinking that takes the biscuit. Whilst walking around the studio together (previously a door painting factory by the way) he would pull out paintings from bookshelves, cupboards or from under the sofa depending on the topic of conversation. To my absolute surprise he casually pulled out studies of road signs, memes, vexillology and even a portrait of a strangely written character from a BBC drama. All the while, the much larger and authoritative works stood quietly in the background, hanging around the 'main wall' like wise giants. It was here when I really saw his process of testing his thoughts out no matter how big or small... Giving them a chance to grow legs, if they wanted to.
Then we sit down, my phone's out and this is the transcribed recording:
How are you finding this studio, how long have you been working in here? I moved in to this studio part way through September 2019 and because I've had other studios before I set up so quick. The first time around it took me so long, like the whole year was just setting up really because you're not comfortable when you're trying to find shelves and stuff. Me and my mate built this whole thing for like £12 [points to wall rack], I like building random stuff, it's good fun.
Are you making work outside of your studio as well then, at home or anything? I do drawings and stuff and I like gouache, I do that at home but not that often. It's quite hard with commuting back home. I think everywhere though [hands me a pile of tiny sketchbooks] - This one is full of pictures that I wish I took. I used to spend a lot of time on the drawings in my sketchbook and then I felt like, what's the point? They become a little piece that only you see or someone looks through it, you have to tear it out and it looks shit. I have been doing smaller paintings on paper, funnily enough I bought this thing on eBay when I couldn't sleep, this weird long ring binder - To make it look like it was a sketchbook page. [hole punches sheet of kitchen towel]. The first painting I saw of yours was that big cow lying down on the sofa, it really stuck in my mind and I kept thinking about it for ages. I get a slightly uncomfortable feeling from it but I enjoy the intensity. What has been the reaction from other people about that piece of work? Oh! A lot of people like that painting, at the time I did it quite quick, like really early on the basic image was there and people would come in and were saying it was cool and they always remembered it. The colours are quite striking... Coincidently they're like McDonalds colours. The image just kind of came about because there was this similar sofa at these student halls, I wasn't staying there at the time but it's one of those things that sticks in your mind. I painted the sofa as if it was meat as well, it was like this guilty disgusting thing. I was thinking a lot about meat at the time, I'm not vegetarian but I just thought it was weird, just how much meat I was eating. It's a strange thing when you think about it, it's such a rich topic and I was taken away by it.
Previously we exchanged a few messages about your using of meat as a subject in your work and you told me you were influenced by cartoons during your childhood, one of them being Tom and Jerry. Why do you think these cartoon images of meats stayed with you, what is it about them? Well nostalgia is a very easy thing to take from because it's already lined up in an easily digestible format. You don't remember the whole mess of the show, you remember strong images from it that stick with you. It's just so strong and those images make for easy painting, well they start the ideas off anyway. For some reason I remember Spiderman so well, and Rugrats and things. Nostalgia is so rich. I think because so many people do that kind of work, I didn't know if I should do it as well but I wanted to make paintings. I wanted to make stuff but I didn't know what to make stuff of.
At times your work is quite comical, a big oil painting of an upside-down plastic garden chair is really out there, it’s a totally different vibe when compared to some of the ‘serious’ portrait studies you’ve done. How do you balance that? I think that's the bit that keeps me painting, you know? If I tried to focus on making something funny it would almost never come out funny. The plastic chair thing came about because I couldn't think of what to make for my degree show and my ideas were getting too serious. The meat thing, I did that for ages and at one point I was cutting up a fridge, and I had the meat painting next to it and it was like a kind of a strange food thing but also it looked disgusting. It was just getting too serious... I was drawing my dad sitting outside on a plastic chair and I just thought the plastic chair was more of a funny thing than just the portrait of my dad. You know how some ideas just keep going? I just thought my end of year painting at uni should just be those plastic chairs. Giant plastic chairs.
They're fun to draw but they're not so fun to paint. I'm not stopping with the plastic chairs though, I think theres a lot more to do.
I think you've got a fetish for plastic chairs.
Haha, I have a separate Instagram account for them, I think about them a lot.
And you know how we were talking about Richie Culver's work a bit earlier? I think these chairs are somehow really English and class related... They remind me of growing up and of English summer time with the BBQ out. Haha, yeah that's right, I tried to make some bbq style paintings but I don't think they work. I've got one that I love so much though... It's so stupid! It's just sausages in the air. But I thought they looked a bit shitty, like cartoon poos... But I love that painting, I thought it was funny. They were on this nice handmade paper but they might work better on canvas.
So, obviously you’re using a lot of yellow and it has almost become a bit of a brand for your work, at least when I think of your work. Has this been intentional or something that’s just naturally happened? What's all this yellow doing for you? A bit of both. It's become intentional because I wanted to keep a consistency that I didn't feel like I had last year... But originally, I read this article about a prison that was painted pink, they did it to try and use the colour to influence people. In the end it wasn't that conclusive, like it affected them a bit. It was a while ago that I read it though. So I was experimenting with different colours. But I wasn't putting too much weight in to it, it wasn't that heavy. Then I also saw a review of JZ's 4:44 album. Someone described the colours of the album artwork as 'non offensive' then they showed his other album covers being more serious or more intense with strong colours. I thought that was a strange thing to pick up on in a music review. So then I painted my studio walls a non offensive pink, in between the JZ one and the pink from the prison. You know how you stain your canvases for certain things, like the old masters... What was the word?... Imprimatura! I had a tutorial at uni and we were talking about how certain colours are somehow old fashioned. So then I stained a canvas bright yellow and I just kept going because I had all of this yellow pigment. The yellow can be so strong that I don't know whether to paint it out or not. At the moment it's all different yellows every time because I'm kind of experimenting, it can be quite exhausting as well with materials. So I've found yellow paint around the house and primed a couple of things with that, just to use up the paint and also just to see if I like it, but I do have a specific one. I have this app by Adobe that scans colours for the hex code, I've got that code. I wanted a colour in between. Yellow gets really nasty really quickly, put a bit too much green, put too much blue it's like a sick colour and the same with red and brown it's a shitty colour... Like when cigarette packets changed over to that horrible greeny yellow, I kind of liked it even though it doesn't look good. I wanted the colour that I was using to be in-between sicky and happy. The more alluring thing for me now is that they look branded. I don't want to call them a product but they kind of are. It's not my favourite colour actually though, my favourite colour's red, haha!
Objects, animals and people. They are all such different areas but you’re kind of tending to them in an equal way, have you thought much about them in terms of having hierarchy, how do you view them? I've always anthropomorphised stuff, even for silly things. I liked that thing Bob Ross said when he always painted two trees together because he didn't want them to be lonely, haha. Painting those kinds of things is interesting to me, like when I'm painting a chair as if it was a person or had the same feel of a person. I go through phases but I enjoy painting people more, definitely. People are way more interesting. I want to paint people more but painting objects is definitely more of a challenge because I don't have such an emotional response to it.
What are you up to next, what's going on? Nothing is really scheduled, I've been acting on this idea that I just need a body of work, so I'm working as much as possible so that I'm always ready. I've started applying for stuff though, but I just want so much to have a body of work that works together but also can flip around with subject matter. I know I want to do things and I know I want to do an international show. Whehey then, thanks James! This is James' instagram & here's his website.
Who the Heck wrote this? Mitchell Smith // Artist & "Writer" www.msmith.art
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