James’s roots as a graffiti artist are apparent in his approach to painting. He was tagging trains in New York City’s subway system when he was barely in his teens, writing under the alias, “REAS.” The energy and adventure of that time animate each one of his large-scale compositions. Combining abstraction and figuration, he develops pared-down, flattened shapes and forms that resolve into jarring scenes of pleasure, violence, excess, and exploitation. For James, such oppositions reflect those inherent to contemporary life, with its admixture of anodyne marketing messages, head-emptying celebrity culture, and other mass media bombardments, ongoing against a backdrop of political shenanigans, wars, and social crises worldwide.
Pulling from comic books and the news alike, James fills his compositions with a cartoonish cast of characters. Among them are sunglass-wearing Somali pirates, helmeted UN soldiers, and nude or scantily clad women, most often blonds. Against beaches, lush palm trees, and bright blue skies, these women brandish hyper-colored AK-47s, whose elongated barrels cut across the picture plane. Some of the UN soldiers hold dainty cups of tea in the hand not wielding their guns, while the Somali pirates appear ready for a night out at the disco. And where we might expect to see umbrellas beside the bare-skinned beach bunnies, we find weapons instead.
All of this coalesces into a vision at once humorous and nightmarish—the nightly news churned together with gossip magazines. “The colors are really bright but the subject matter is serious,” the artist once said of his work. “These paintings aren’t judgments, but just a look at what’s going on.”