Nathan James’ dark art of multimedia

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Tapping into iBooks, Google CAD software, online radio and social media, Canadian artist Nathan James has created a tech-infused exhibition that will live on long after its residency. Matt Hill takes a tour

[Originally published in June 2013 issue of T3]

Ontario-born, south London-based painter Nathan James specialises in darkly surreal, druggy takes on pop culture. Hailed by Brit-art behemoth Jake Chapman, of frequent model mutilators the Chapman brothers, his ‘Creepshow’ collection merges Facebook addiction, Hollywood embraces, Mickey Mouse hands and melting faces into a vaguely unsettling whole.

“I was playing with the idea of Pessimist Pop,” he says, “using some of the conventions and iconography of popular art and culture to examine darker, more unsavoury aspects of my personality.”

In the case of our personal favourite, Who Needs Friends [above], that’s “laziness, loneliness, and neediness” apparently. Trust us.

“Instead of being pathetic and sad, it’s funny,” he ressures. “Giving myself cartoon hands was a way too take the sting out of the themes. A way of laughing at my own shortcomings.”

But while his successful residency at London’s Cob Gallery this spring has now ended, the 26-piece collection lives on in an accompanying digital book created by James himself.

The “e-catalog”, built in iBooks Author, features more than just his artwork in flip form, too, utilising extensive text critiques and interviews, audio files (a documentary by Monocle magazine’s online radio station) and video.

“It’s pretty common for a gallery to produce a catalogue for an exhibition,” says James, “but they can be expensive to produce and to purchase. Producing an iBook meant I could do it on my own with virtually no production costs and give it away free.

“Using iBooks Author also meant I could add multimedia elements. Nowadays, as an artist, so many of the channels you’re publicised through are digital that just doing a print catalogue seems kind of limiting. The images also look incredible on an iPad screen, rather than being printed on cheap paper.”

The near-four-minute gallery tour video [below] was an entire production in itself, a three-dimensional CAD walkthrough of the Cob Gallery exhibition – with artworks in situ – created by James in Google’s free modelling software SketchUp.

“If you’re familiar with Photoshop, it’s easy to get your head round,” says James. “I’d been teaching myself various 3D design applications as a hobby, and after one online tutorial on how to make architectural models from floor plans, I decided to practice on The Cob.

“Our curator, Bakul Patki, was abroad for a few weeks before the show opened and I thought it would be interesting to make scale models to send her so that we could play around with where the paintings should go.

“It was really helpful in terms of curation. I’d been to the gallery once before but after hours and hours making that video, I knew every inch of the space.”

The video is captivating not just for the virtual tour it provides, creating a never-ending iGallery that can be visited long after James’ exhibition has ended, but the foreboding ambient soundtrack by Artwork, one part of dubstep supergroup Magnetic Man. The instrumentalist contributed new music to the project after a little light social networking.

“He liked an image of mine he saw on Twitter and got in touch,” adds James. “By coincidence, he lives nearby, so we arranged a studio visit. I gave him a draft version of the video and he offered to make an original soundtrack for it. It’s amazing how well he interpreted the mood of the show.”

Home-made CAD videos, iBook experiments, affectionate, illustrative odes to NES Advantage Joysticks – in between the dark, satirical undercurrents, there’s clearly a lot a geek love here.

“I’ve got to own up to having put in my fair share of hours on games consoles, nowadays, particularly with the Battlefield franchise,” admits James. “If those had never been invented, I’d possibly have finished this show a lot faster than I did.”

Creepshow: New Paintings by Nathan James is free on iBooks. See more of his work at ndjames.comFor an edited version of this article with interactive video and additional images, download the June issue of T3: iPad Edition

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