From Wall Street to Art: In conversation with James Perkins, NYC-based Sculpturist and Painter

14th of May 2020

When was the last time you found yourself moved deep in the core of your being by a work of art or natural beauty? 

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview NYC-based Sculpturist and Painter, James Perkins, who has been blazing his own trail as a full-time artist for quite some time now.

In our conversation, James was kind enough to open up about his connection to the world, how his time as a student influenced his artwork, challenges he has faced along the way, and much more. You’ll want to pay close attention, James has some helpful insights and suggestions for fellow artists and creatives alike! 

James, Tell us about your creative journey as an artist. Have you always had an interest in art? 

My experience of the world has always been a visual and felt one. Even when I was very little growing up in The South I understood the context of my surroundings just based on the visuals. Like many artists, I drew and sketched for hours in my room. I even kept a studio in Junior High School at the urging of a teacher. My Junior High School art teacher gave me his office as a studio to draw in while he taught the main class. I had a few teachers like this growing up. Teachers are incredible. And like Veterans, we should adore and take care of them. But as I was saying, there was a time in High School where my parents and counselors stopped letting me take art classes to do other things. I was able to get straight A’s in advanced classes but not many were able to understand the different types of intelligence which are equally important to society. Nonetheless, I did get accepted into Yale where I majored in Chemistry. While on campus I was still very creative starting a creative writing journal, called The Voice. And later when I worked on Wall Street for a time I would come home and paint. An experience and industry more common among artists than most people may realize. I began working on projects around financial literacy for young adults and then BBOM, 2008 happened. In conjunction with those projects I would collaborate with talented NYC creatives to create interruptive messaging and that was the slippery slope that I needed to end up where I started. I went to graduate school at the School of Visual Arts in NYC for photography but then realized, I am very much into 3-dimensional objects and totems and their meanings and energy. And here we are today more or less. It began with conceptual photography then it led me down and education of Robert Irwin, Richard Serra, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, Donald Judd, Eva Hesse, and there was no looking back, I needed to explore Light & Space and Land Art for myself, but not on the West Coast, but the East. 

Was there a significant moment when you decided to follow your path as an artist?

I was running a magazine and interviewing artists and I thought: "I’m trying to bring an art to what I'm doing, but some people are better suited to report and others are better suited to do." Even now, I’m going through a phase where I want to say less about the work and just figure out the next work.

You have a very unique process of creating your art. Can you explain it? How did you come up with it?

The Burying Painting: Event Horizons series began as a moment of spontaneity when I was making stretchers at the beach and I remembered this statement from Agnes Martin saying, along with other minimalist artists, that she wanted to make the "last paintings". I wanted to be as bold and ambitious and romantic, so I thought: "I want to bury painting." The irony was that burying a painting gave me another panting. And it was also the beginning of an entire way of working. Especially working outdoors and in collaboration with nature.    

We noticed, from your Instagram stories - you have a great vinyl collection, would you say music plays a big role in your art? What is the ultimate go-to song for you to get in the mood?

My parents didn’t understand hip-hop when I was growing up and in their defense, I can understand where they were coming from. I grew up in a house where we were always reading and writing just like some people play board games. So hip hop was off limits. I had an uncle in Chicago that was a musician, so he began sending me jazz music. I fell in love with Miles Davis. He just made sense to me. His music sounds like my brain feels. Blue and Green off of Kind of Blue 1959 really meets my mood. I think my next favorite recording lately has been Yoyo Ma’s recording of Bach’s "The Unaccompanied Cello Suites No. 1 & 2" from 1983. And a goodie for artists is La Boheme, the music is incredible and the libretto is even better. “How do I live? I live!"

Your love for fashion is clearly visible through your Instagram - tell us a little bit about that (your style, favorite designers, pieces). Is there a strong correlation between your work and fashion?

There is a strong correlation between my work and fashion, but I try to be careful with it and I always feel that I fail.

Everyone dresses. Everyone has a body. We reveal by covering. I am interested in universal experiences. A universal beauty.

My first totem abstractions explored if I could endow inanimate objects with a similar emotion that we experience when getting dressed. So, I dressed and draped structures in fashion textiles. While the works are minimal or reductive in nature, there is a lot of figurative references in the material and process.

The correlation is two-fold. There is the craft and the totem. My father used to bring home GQ magazines for me as a young boy in the late ’80s. Reading Glenn O’Brien’s The Style Guy not even knowing he worked for Warhol and helping craft the NY scene was big for me. Growing up in The South I was always confused and intrigued by the difference of what I saw on TV or read versus my regional surroundings. I drove my parents crazy. Saw something on Miami Vice, gotta have it! Saw it on The Fresh Prince, need it! The vibes of the Cosby Show. Even Dynasty, which I recently re-watched every episode for research. I wanted to see how I would respond to the stimulus with more information.

Later when I moved to NY after Yale to work on Wall Street, I observed more tribal behavior and dress. The totems. Wall Street now versus the coked-out ’80s versus the Roaring ’20s. Harlem now, versus P. Diddy and Biggie Smalls versus Langston Hughs and James Baldwin, Soho downtown now and ASAP Mob, versus the 2000s, versus the 80’s "9 1/2 Weeks'' movie, versus the ’60s with Judd, Serra, Kusama et al. Then when you layer the history of craft on all that it gets even more textured, literally with textiles, and cuts and artisans along with dynamics like the Silk Road tell the story of us all. I follow designers specifically not labels. So Hedi Slimane, Demna Gevalia, along with Raf and Ralph and Dries. I had a great tailor when I first moved to NY who explained to me the art of tailoring and cutting. I think clothes should be made in fewer quantities, slower and of high sustainable quality so you love the thing more the older it gets. Beauty is in the age. Like my paintings and sculptures weathering the vicissitudes of life. 

How did you manage to establish an identity or signature aesthetic through your work?

I let it happen naturally with tons of time,  tons of research, reading, traveling, looking and trying. Then some combination of intelligence, mindfulness, taste and luck come into play to realize a body of work. I think today everyone is impatient to create what I'm gonna call real art right now for lack of a better description. The galleries are impatient, the artists are impatient, and everyone has to eat in the meantime. So that has left us with a lot of designers, design shops, and social pundits, all of which I enjoy, also, but not necessarily art in quotation marks. 

Art history, philosophy, and inventing are extremely important to me. Trying to arrive at a unique use of material and gesture is incredibly difficult if your intention is invention. I have discarded more works than I will ever show.

What piece of your artwork would you like to be remembered by?

Burying Painting: Event Horizon No. 1 (The Great South Bay), Fire Island, New York. A lot of people see the resultant paintings, but I think they forget or don’t quite understand the import of the process of how they arrive here. The perceived beauty that they see meant that I had to let go of some initial conceived understanding or expectation of beauty to watch that version completely disappear to get to one that maybe less perfect in structure but more stories in experience.

What do you gain inspiration from? Any artists that you admire?

I gain inspiration from nature and how it makes me feel. I learned modes and models for thinking from Donald Judd, Richard Serra, John Cage, Miles Davis, Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer. We have replicated the strategies of painting or bronze sculpture so much that I think I am attracted to these newer modes that are less studied and more difficult to execute. You don’t just get a painting at the end of a month or two. It's almost a complete commitment to your life being the work, with a few objects and remnants left along the way. Can your life make a bigger influence than any work you ever make? I’m not sure but I live every day as an experiment of that question. Every person I touch, can I inspire them to think about things differently in a positive, joyous, rigorous way, where I actually push them to want to push themselves. Sometimes I have to chill cause it gets intense. Not intense in experience but intense in terms of maintaining that length of commitment and mindfulness. 

How would you define creativity in one sentence?

Educated talent seeking more.

What is your greatest indulgence in life?

Time.

Lastly, what advice would you give to a young artist to stand out from the crowd/ develop their own voice and style?

That’s a more difficult question by the day. I see people copying other people or not being very inventive and being recognized widely. Will they be remembered? Time will tell. I think one has to do what feels true to them. Only then can they arrive at their version of their best potential and thus their solace regardless of the outcome and therefore be successful, which is what we are talking about in this version of society which is being tested. One knows when they are trying too hard or it doesn’t quite feel right and have to edit that. I see so many works, or shows where the artist or curator did not have the discipline to edit. Be brave and edit. 

P.S

In case you find yourself looking for some sensational and inspiring art pieces for your home, look no further -  James Perkins' Studio.

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