by Liza Roberts
Photographs by Christer Berg
It took him five days to transform a vacant North Hills storefront into a work of art that can be entered and experienced in three dimensions.
“How do you get a square room not to look like a square room anymore?” asks Raleigh artist James Marshall, pondering his prismatic creation. The answer, partly: color, angle, expanse. The artist, also known as Dalek, is famous for his kaleidoscopic canvases, murals, and collaborations with Hurley and Nike. He sits in the middle of this latest work within its otherwise pedestrian retail space. Most recently, it was filled with Quail Ridge’s books; before that, with furniture.
Now, it’s a fiery fractal you can inhabit; a psychedelic Aztec quilt; an embracing color matrix.
“There’s something powerful in scale,” Marshall says, spinning in his Nike shorts and flip-flops, taking it all in, top to bottom, side to side. “The bigger the fields of color, the more impact.” Unlikely juxtapositions and shapes take the viewer’s eye on unexpected journeys: “Angles pull you through the space and up to the ceiling.”
Marshall’s own angle is pointed. He has an opinion he’s expressing with this latest work, and he wants it to be heard: Raleigh needs more public art, and lots of it, he says. Public art will bring people together, energize and activate the city, and give it personality, purpose, and pride. He points to Millennium Park in Chicago, which transformed from a vacant lot into a destination in no small part thanks to Anish Kapoor’s mesmerizing Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as “the Bean.”
Something like that would be an incalculable asset to Raleigh, he says. “This is a great opportunity. It needs real investment.”
Marshall – who started out years ago as a graffiti artist and now shows his work in major galleries and museums around the world, and whose work was explored in depth in Walter’s June/July 2014 issue – counts himself among those anteing up.
“Yes, I am going to get paid, and get exposure” for the North Hills work, he says, “but this is far more about getting art into a public space with high traffic and sparking conversations about the value of public art. I think it enriches people’s lives. Not art people. Everyday people. That’s the biggest power art has, is for everyday people – to bring energy to them, to bring life.”
Gab Smith, the executive director of CAM Raleigh, says Marshall is an ideal messenger. “There’s no better artist than James to mobilize people to understand the value of public art,” says Smith. “His style is very accessible and beautiful at the same time, and he has more credibility than anyone in the community through museums and street culture.”
His longtime commercial projects and collaborations also make him comfortable discussing not only the community impact of public art, but also its bottom line. “You’re not going to spend better money on marketing,” he says. “You need to engage people.”
It didn’t take long for North Hills to put his transformed space to engaging use. The site became the setting for WALK, its merchants’ annual fashion show fundraiser. Several other groups have since booked the space for events. “People are excited by it,” says Arrington Clark, a special events and branding specialist at Kane Realty with a background in art. “It’s bright, it’s not difficult to read. It’s for all ages, all people.” She says North Hills plans to install a lot more art in its public spaces, and that Marshall is an ideal artist to kick it all off: “His mission is in line with ours: to provide the public with more art in free spaces, to offer the opportunity to be stopped in this busy world, to enjoy art.”
CAM’s Smith calls North Hills and Kane Realty “public art pioneers” in Raleigh.
Immersed in it
At first, Marshall says, North Hills asked him to “paint that one wall.” He points to the large, window-free back wall of the space. “But I said no, we have to do the whole thing. I wanted the whole space activated, so when people come in here, they have the complete experience.”
That experience, he hopes, is immersive. He seeks out that kind of thing himself, most recently when he agreed to paint a mural in Detroit because he wanted an excuse to visit the city’s landmark Guardian Building with its ornate Art Deco interiors. He wanted to stand in the building and soak it all in.
Art Deco is a recent influence on Marshall’s work. He respects its elaborate design, something he says is lacking in modern life. “We don’t have any grandeur. We need grandeur. It’s uplifting. It shifts the dynamic.” He’s also interested in the shapes of Masonic symbolism and Navajo textiles, and how they come to resemble and inform one another. This latest work of his, Marshall says, reflects those influences, and also represents his effort to master something he cares about viscerally but is still working to decipher: color. “It’s always been this evolution of trying to figure out color. To me, so much of understanding color is understanding color’s effect on people.”
To that end, he experimented here with what he considers a limited palette – 10 hues, as opposed to the 70-plus he’s used in other murals.
“I’ve been on a kick with these colors,” he says, describing them as “melony” and “grapefruity.” A smaller range of colors presented new challenges, but also new discoveries: “You can push this or that to make this flatter here, or that denser there … I tried to take that lightest pink, and drop some dark colors against it. I’m trying to learn about depth. Where the light pink meets the dark red, it really hurts my eyes.”
But it’s the whole-room physicality of the space that has him most excited. “I’m trying to problem- solve for spaces,” he says, “not just put paint on the wall.” Where’s it all heading? Possibly toward sculpture, he hints. But he doesn’t want to be held to that. “This is unusual for me. This piece is a departure. It’s all an evolution. I’m always trying to figure out where to push it, where to take it next.”
The Dalek Exhibit, located in the storefront next to Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse at 4381 Lassiter at North Hills Ave., will be open to the public from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Nov. 12 and Dec. 10 and from 1 p.m. – 6 p.m. Nov. 3 and Dec. 1. James Marshall has another mural in Raleigh on the exterior wall of Bruegger’s Bagels in the Ridgewood Shopping Center at 3510 Wade Ave.