Todd James’ visual language developed from the absorption of the mass of imagery surrounding him growing up in the States during the 1970s and 1980s.
2002 Biennial Year Find out more
He has described himself as someone who ‘spent the bulk of his childhood with cereal and cartoons’ and cites some of his earliest artistic influences as ‘Sid and Marty Kraft, Hanna-Barbera and Frankenberry’. His career as a graffiti writer started in his early teens. Working under the tag REAS, he built a considerable reputation as one of the leading painters of New York City subway trains.
Following this early introduction to what he has described as ‘the practical challenges of good design’ he has worked as both a graphic designer and animator, whilst continuing his graffiti writing. His work combines a humorous comic book aesthetic with surreal and often overtly sexual subject matter. Projects have included illustrations for Hustler and Screw, the cartoon series Zoo Force for CartoonNetwork.com and design work for Def Jam, Kid Rock and Eminem.
James has also made work specifically for galleries. He collaborated on the critically acclaimed Indelible Market and Street Market with Barry McCee and Stephen Powers. These installations created an equivalent for urban street life in the gallery space, with storefronts covered in graffiti, overturned trucks and a visual onslaught of street signage. His REAS tag was integrated into the found and fabricated advertising placards – so identifying the graffiti ‘logo’ as product – and his cartoon figures appeared on labels for invented goods with ironic names such as ‘Family-Size Sarcasm, Subtle Yet Bitter’. McCee and Powers also participated in the International 2002 but in this instance the three artists created three separate projects shown alongside each other.
James’ project for International 02 was made for the schoolyard of Pleasant Street Board School. Taking over two disused bunkers and the walls of the yard, his installation combined painting, signage and animation. He described the theme of the installation as a ‘thematic path that contrasts innocent childhood experiences with an overwhelming sexuality that is purely adolescent in its fervour’.
Assorted characters appeared in all aspects of the installation, portrayed in the brash graphic style of capitalist mass culture. Yet, despite their cartoonesque natures, the characters still managed to convey very real emotions and human concerns. A strange ‘little marshmallow fellow’ was convincing in his anguish, even when in the form of a mass-produced commercial sign. The characters were brought to life in an animation that took the familiar form of Saturday morning kids’ TV. The cacophony of images in the installation recalled an ideal world of fun and fantasy, but was a flawed ideal tainted by a disquieting adult tension. James described his work as a world in which ‘your bike gets stolen, and your mom can’t help you. But the cheerful counterbalance of an off-model Pink Panther holding his Johnson lets you laugh the whole thing off. These works are for people who giggle when others fall down.’
2 Ply, 2002
Graphite, Gouache, Aluminium
Commissioned by Henry Moore Foundation Contemporary Projects
Exhibited at Pleasant Street Board School