Interview with James Bullough for ‘Parallel Truths’

Thinkspace is pleased to present Parallel Truth featuring new work by James Bullough.

Bullough is a technically accomplished painter who creates with a staggering degree of detail. He begins with figurative imagery, disjointing and levitating its fragmented parts impressionistically to build dynamic surfaces that read with startling affective resonance.

In anticipation of Parallel Truth, our interview with James Bullough discusses what piece challenged him, his advice to fledgling artists, and what skill he would download into his brain.

SH: For those that are not familiar with you and your work, can you give us a brief look at your artistic background and how you came to meet our curator and co-owner Andrew Hosner?

JB: I started my art journey a bit late in life.  I graduated from college with an Art Education degree and eventually went on to be a middle school art teacher just outside of Baltimore.  Studying to be an art teacher is much more about being a teacher than being an artist.  I took a few art classes but nothing too serious, it was mostly about teaching.  After 4 or 5 years of teaching kids how to be artists, I figured I might give it a go in my basement in the evenings after work.  A few years later, after a lot of experimenting and a little guidance from a local oil painter, I figured I knew enough to quit my job and go full time.  Obviously I didn’t, but I sold my house, my car, and pretty much everything I owned and moved to Berlin with the unrealistic goal that I’d be showing in galleries within a year.

It took me about 3 or 4 years in Berlin to find my own voice artistically and develop my skills.  Right around that same time I met Andrew Hosner at an event for the Urban Nation Museum.  I invited Andrew and Shawn to come on my newly formed podcast, VantagePoint Radio, and from there we hit it off.  He took a liking to my work and invited me to show some small paintings in a couple of group shows and before long he asked me to join the roster for the first Vitality and Verve exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art. That show ended up being a huge deal and the piece I created for it really stood out and made people take notice.  I’ve been working closely with Andrew and Thinkspace ever since.

SH: What is the inspiration and themes you explored for this body of work?

JB: As is the case with most of my work, my inspirations and explorations are mostly technique-driven.  I like to push myself with every painting to make something more interesting or complex or just different than the last painting.  It can be simply pushing the design and composition further, or working with more complex photos or more interesting models or just doing a better job with the actual painting of the image. 

For this show ‘Parallel Truths’ I am actually presenting three different bodies of work which I’ve been developing over the past year and a half.  The first is my traditional fractured portraits but pushed a bit further in terms of composition and delicacy of the painting and level of detail. The second is my peeling portraits which give the feeling of the painting peeling off of the wall or the wall peeling away and revealing the portrait underneath.  The third is what I’m calling ‘hidden words’ which is a spin-off from the peeling portraits but instead of revealing a portrait underneath the peeling wallpaper reveals a hidden word which you really have to work to find.  So for me, this body of work is all about trying new techniques and pushing what I’ve been doing for the past few years into new directions.

SH: Is there a particular piece in this exhibition you feel really challenged you?

JB: If so, why and what makes you proud of this piece. One of the larger paintings in this show is called ‘Morning Light’ and features a new model I’m working with named Polly Ellens from London who is one of the most interesting looking people I’ve ever seen.  I actually passed her in the Philadelphia airport and couldn’t resist walking up to her and asking if I could paint her.  I’d never done that before and haven’t done it since but Polly just had a look I couldn’t let go.  Unfortunately, the look that she has is quite tricky to paint.  She has ice blue eyes and an explosion of freckles on her face which highlight the brightness of her fiery red hair.  The combination is absolutely stunning.  She is also covered in tattoos which I left out of the paintings because, in the end, they were distracting from everything else. Painting a face with so many freckles is really challenging.  First I had to try to see her without all the freckles and tattoos so I could paint her skin as it is underneath.  Then add the freckles on at the end without making them look painted on.  It was really tricky and technically over my head but if I didn’t get it right I would have had to start the whole face all over again.  In the end, it worked out really well and is probably my best bit of oil painting I’ve ever done and that feels really good.  It’s going to be a hard painting to let go of when it sells.  

SH: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the creative process?

JB: When I come up with a new idea for a painting or a new technique I want to try I am always faced with the reality that I can plan and design all I want to ahead of time but I’ll never really know if what I want to try will work until the painting is finished.  My paintings take weeks or even months to design and paint so that uncertainty can be really crippling.  I have had to grow a thick skin and trust my instincts but also trust that if what I’m going for starts to seem like it’s not working, I’ll be able to wrestle it into something that does work.  My least favorite part of the creative process is that floating feeling when I’m not sure if things are working and how things will be received.  But the flip side of that is when I get toward the end of a painting and start to realize that the idea I had half a year ago is really going to work and this piece is going to knock people socks off when they see it.  That’s my favorite part.

SH: If you could make an album cover for any musical artist, who would it be?

JB: My favorite genres of music are hip hop and drum and bass (a kind of slightly aggressive sub-genre of electronic music).  I don’t really think my work lends well to those types of music, although there are a few exceptions that come to mind.  My work would probably better suit some kind of indie rock band like Death Cab or LCD Soundsystem or something.  Maybe if Postal Service got back together and put out a new album my painting ‘Colide’ from this upcoming show would be a cool album cover.

SH: A Netflix movie is being made about your life, who would be cast to play you (the actor does not need to look like you, more be able to capture your essence) and what kind of movie would it be? Try to describe it with similar movies.

JB: Wow!  I could take this question in a million different ways.  Jonny Drama from the show Entourage, unfortunately, might have to play me because people have said we look similar before.  I’m not happy about it but it might just have to be a fact.  

As for the story, it might have to be some kind of Forest Gump or Benjamin Button kind of movie because I’ve always felt like I lived my life out of order and every 5 or 6 years I’ve completely shifted gears and done something totally different than before.  In college, I was pretty heavy in the rave scene and was a club Dj but had never really left the northeast coast of the US.  Then after graduation, I spent a year traveling the world and doing any insane thing I could think of like an out of control teenager.  When I returned to the States I got a job teaching at a suburban middle school for nearly a decade, basically living the life of a 45-year-old during my entire 20s. When I couldn’t take that anymore I moved to Berlin in my 30s and fell in with some graffiti/street art guys and next thing you know I’m hanging off an 8 story roof at 3 in the morning with a roller in handwriting a name I made up for myself like some drunk 20 year old.  

Last year I turned 40 and had my second baby in two years… so finally I feel like I’m living the appropriate life for my age for the first since I was in primary school.  Unfortunately, I look and feel like I’m in my 50s so who knows, maybe I’ve still got it all wrong.

SH: If you could download any skill into your brain, Matrix-style, what would you want to instantly learn?

JB: I’d like to be fluent in German.  I’ve been living in Berlin for almost 10 years and speak just enough to get by.  I studied full time at a school in Germany for over a year and on and off for years after that but my brain just isn’t built for learning languages.  It may sound like a cop-out and maybe it is but I was never good at school and languages are just a mystery to me. It’s definitely one of my biggest regrets knowing that I can’t truly be myself and relate to people in the country I live in the same way I do with English speakers. 

SH: Some of the advice you give to other artists is to commit to consistency, and the honest self-realization of when one starts to think they are getting pretty-good it’s still not that great – so keep going. How long did it take you to develop your style, and then how many additional years to really hone your skills?

JB: I feel like I was one of the lucky ones who sort of figured things out rather quickly and even then it took me about 10 years to really find a voice and a skill set that people responded to and got excited to see.  I had been working on my craft (painting) that whole time while I experimented with lots of different things so, by the time I developed the fractured portrait style that people know me for, I was ready to really go for it.  

It’s natural for young artists to want to do many different things, and in many ways, it’s completely necessary to figure out what you want to focus on and what you’re good at.  But at some point, in my humble opinion, you need to be aware enough to notice when that “thing” comes around and then grab it and go hard with it until you are undeniably good at it and nobody else is doing it quite the way or quite as good as you are.  You can always expand and experiment later, and you definitely should, but if your goal is to get noticed you’ve got to be focused 

SH: At the beginning of your career, how many hours a day did you spend painting? And now how many hours a day are you painting?   

JB: When I first started painting in my mid 20’s I was working full time as a middle school teacher so the only time I could paint was for a few hours in the evenings. I was quite dedicated to it and painted as much as I could but it was definitely just a hobby then.  When I moved to Berlin in 2010 is when I started to take is seriously and considered painting as my job.  From then I was painting all day every day and as I started getting a bit of interest in my work and was invited to shows I was painting between 9-12 hours a day 6 days a week.  Eventually, my wife had enough of my crazy hours and now we’ve got two little girls so I keep pretty normal work hours these days but I had to hire an assistant to keep the workflow from falling off.  

SH: Would you rather be able to talk to animals or read people’s minds?

JB: Definitely read people’s minds.  Although that seems like one of those powers that seems better than it actually is.  I bed you’d want to lose that ability pretty quickly after realizing you have it.

SH: If you could paint a mural anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?

JB: My favorite part about painting murals is the family vibe between all the artists in the scene and painting alongside of all my friends.  Painting a commission wall is great and pays the bills but painting at a mural festival is so much more fun.  Any time you get 20 or so people at the top of their field together and give them a week to do what they do best and share thoughts and experiences and good times you’re going to have a super fun and creative experience.  So for me, the answer to the question is not really about where would be the best place to paint a mural but rather with whom?  If I could invite all of my mural buddies and a bunch of others who I respect but haven’t met yet and given us a week or two in a small town that would be the most ideal situation for me.  Bonus points if there’s sun every day and a beach and no wind.

Join us for the opening reception of Parallel Truths Saturday, February 29th, from 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm.

Interview with James Bullough

Scope is a great way for us to close out the year, and 2017 didn’t disappoint. We want to thank everyone that came to the booth and a big round of applause to the entire staff of Scope. Also, major kudos to both James Bullough and Michael Reeder who sold out their solo shows during the fair. Below is our interview with Jame Bullough on behalf of his mini solo at Scope.

Was this your first time at Scope?  If not, what is your favorite thing about Scope? Any good stories from this year to share?

2017 was my third year in a row showing at Scope, each time with Thinkspace Gallery.  My first two years, however, I only showed one or two pieces versus the 7 that I showed this year.  Maybe because it takes place in December but I see Scope and the whole Miami Basel week as a culmination of the years work for everyone in the industry.  It’s a place where you can come and see a good percentage of the active people in the scene all in one place and see how their work has progressed since the last year (or not) and who is showing with who.  It’s kind of like a “state of the union” for the art world.  Add on top of that that many of the artists make the trip to Miami so it’s also kind of a family reunion of sorts for everyone to catch up and party and let loose to celebrate the end of another successful year.

Every day and especially every night is an adventure with that many friends in town.  There were a couple epic nights this year, the stories of which I should probably keep to myself, but one that stands out was definitely the night of the Secret Walls battle which I participated in followed by a secret birthday party for my man Alexis Diaz… that was a HEAVY night.

What did you want to push and explore whether in technique or theme in your body of work for Scope?

Showing 7 paintings at Scope allowed me to showcase a few different techniques and styles that I’ve been playing with over the past couple years.  Seeing my work online and in person are two very different experiences and I knew that more actual people would see my work in person at Scope than any other exhibition so I took the opportunity to really push each painting and show the world what I can do.  I showed 5 of my more traditional “fractured” paintings but with each of them, I pushed them further than I normally had in the past.  I added more complex backgrounds and use more complex clothing on my models and I also fractured the figures more than I normally would to really blow peoples minds.  I also worked with one model for two of my paintings who has a very intricate full sleeve tattoo which I highlighted to emphasize the technical quality of my work.  On the final two paintings, I showed a new technique I’ve been slowly incorporating into my work where it appears that the painting is peeling off of the canvas (or wood panel in my case).  When done correctly the effect is really grabbing and I enjoy watching people walk up to the painting to see if it is really peeling off or just painted to look like it is.  My work has always been about distorting or disrupting the traditional idea of portraiture so, in a way, the peeling paintings are actually no different from the fractured paintings, it’s just a different way to break up and disrupt the portrait.

Who has been a major artistic influence in your life? Not influencing your style of art, but influencing your approach to art.

There are two very different worlds that have influenced my work heavily, both in style but also approach… Graffiti and street artists, and traditional ‘Old Mastery’ type oil painters.  The two couldn’t be more opposite in many ways.  The technique, style, approach, desired outcome, target market… almost every aspect poses the two worlds against each other.  But perhaps that’s exactly why I look to both of them for my inspiration.  From the traditional oil painting worlds I take the discipline and passion for technique and detail as well as the ability to spend weeks or months on one piece until it’s absolutely just right, but if I lived only in that world all the time I would go absolutely mad.  Luckily for me, I also paint murals and am influenced by the street art world as well which is more about collaboration and working within restrictions such as time and physical limits.  When I’m working on the streets I’ve got to be much freer and more open to making adjustments on the fly.  It’s also a more physical work where I’m moving around a lot and climbing up on scaffolding or using huge machinery, versus the hours on end I sit in my studio at my easel not moving more than a few inches for an entire day.  I need both situations in my life to feel whole.

What does a cram day in the studio look like? What are you eating? How much coffee are you drinking? What are you listening to? – Did you cram to finish pieces for Scope?

Cram DAY???  more like cram month(s).  I paint slowly so I am methodical about planning things out and setting goals for finishing paintings and starting the next one.  It took me roughly 6 months to paint the 7 pieces for Scope and I was working on the last one, one-week before the show opened in Miami.  I take on average about three weeks per painting and I know if I go beyond those three weeks I’m eating into the time for the next painting so I get stressed out about every three weeks as one piece comes to an end.  In all honesty though, I’m a pretty hard worker and my studio days weather stressed or not are mostly the same.

I get in around noon after spending the morning do administrative work or going to the gym.  Then from around noon until 7 or 8 pm I’m painting solid without many brakes at all.  I try not to drink too much coffee or beer (which is extremely difficult) so i’ve switched to Yogi Tea which I’m not sure is any better and I snack on terrible cheap german snacks from the corner shop throughout the whole day, just to ensure that any work I did at the gym that morning was completely nullified.  As for what I listen to, it’s mostly NPR, and science and comedy podcasts, including the best podcast ever… VantagePoint!

What’s coming up next for you?

This year I’ll be quietly working away on a new body of work for my big solo show at Thinkspace in 2019.  I’ll also be traveling around painting murals from time to time starting off with a mural in Hawaii for Pow Wow in February followed by a few big projects I have in the works for the spring and summer.  Other than that I’ll be doing my best impersonation of a good dad and hopefully go on a family vacation for the first time in a couple years with my very supportive and patient wife.

We can’t wait to be showing more of Bullough’s work throughout the year and his solo coming in 2019!