by Liza Roberts
photographs by Nick Pironio
“I like to work in small spaces,” says the artist James Marshall, as he shows a visitor into his North Raleigh garage. At first it’s not clear where that space is, because a shining baby blue ocean liner of a car is all you see. “It’s showroom-new,” he says proudly, pointing out the 1966 Pontiac Catalina’s unblemished, original interior and eight-lug wheels. He drives it every couple of weeks.
Every day, the 6-foot-6-inch artist squeezes past the car to the other side of his garage to paint.
He does that with painstaking precision, using a dense, discontinued kind of pigment made for yesteryear’s cartoon animators. He does it in geometric lines and shapes delineated with painter’s Frog Tape. The canvases he creates – kaleidoscopic, faceted rainbow explosions – have brought him international acclaim and a following that includes West Coast skate punks, running-shoe moguls, and serious New York collectors. His paintings have been shown in galleries and museums across North America, Europe and Japan.
“I would call his work ‘neo geo,’ ” says New York gallery owner Jonathan LeVine, who represents the artist. “The color immediately attracts you, but there’s a depth. There’s the strength of composition, of structure, layering; a depth of color. You can sit and look it a while and it takes you to another place.”
Marshall’s success, including his role as brand artist for skate gear maker Hurley International and his design collaborations with Nike allow him a rare kind of freedom. To take his time with his art, to live in a spacious house on three wooded North Raleigh acres, and to spend real time raising his two sons, 8 and 10. Lately, the very private painter has begun giving back to Raleigh’s own arts community, too.
He’s donated works for the Contemporary Art Museum to auction and spent hours helping the Montessori School of Raleigh create a student-painted mural to commemorate its 40th anniversary. He’s eager to see more public art in Raleigh and says he’ll push for it – and make it. “When art connects with people, it’s transformative,” he says, “It can change the way people feel.”
It all started with graffiti.
Marshall, now 46, was studying photography at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993 when he became fascinated with the graffiti he whizzed past every day on the L train. It made the otherwise-blank and dusty backs of buildings into something spectacular.
He began to photograph graffiti there and in New York, and soon he was putting the character he’d begun doodling in sketch pads onto walls. This Space Monkey was part avatar, part sign of the apocalypse – a bulge-eyed, robotic mouse/monkey. “It was always my belief that technology was going to reduce us all to button-pushers,” he says. “It’s evolutionary and de-evolutionary at the same time.”
When Marshall started tagging walls with the Space Monkey, he adopted the name Dalek, a reference to the fictional robotic villains in the venerable British TV series Dr. Who. It’s a show Marshall watched growing up, which he did as “a misanthropic youth” in cities along the Eastern seaboard, in Hawaii, and in Japan with his military family.
Dalek’s graffiti Space Monkey developed a cult following. A stint working for a California skateboard shoe maker introduced him to the world of professional skaters, some of whom were also artists. Soon Marshall was borrowing garage space from friend and pro skater Chris Markovich to paint the Space Monkey on canvases. His work was showing up in magazines like Juxtapoz and Thrasher. The character he created “took on a life of its own.”
It afforded Marshall the kind of life a young artist dreams of: He moved to New York, found early gallery success, and worked for famed Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who taught him “that superflat style.” Murakami’s approach was “a natural draw for me,” Marshall says. “Getting to work with him really helped my studio practice and understanding of how to make art from a technical aspect.”
At the same time, he was rubbing shoulders with fellow street artist celebrities-in-the-making like Shepard Fairey (famous for his 2008 Obama “Hope” poster), Gary Baseman, Camille Rose Garcia, and Barry McGee. “This group was blurring the lines between illustration and fine art,” says gallery owner LeVine. Marshall married; his Space Monkeys kept selling. People like Nike CEO Mark Parker began to collect his work. And soon the artist found himself in the studio 14 hours a day “trying to keep up with it.”
And then, one day, at the end of 2006, he burned out. The Monkey became rote. “I wasn’t evolving; it became really unfulfilling.” Marshall began first to hide the character, “obscuring it with elements, the geometry stuff,” and then “explode(ed) out of it.” He reduced the Monkey into circles and lines, into color and space, and relegated bits of the character to the periphery of a complex geometric world. He began to use his own name. This new body of work found an even larger audience, and broader critical acclaim.
“James knows how to make a painting seductive and elusive at once,” says Steven Matijcio, curator of the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, who worked with Marshall on the creation of a wall-sized geometric painting at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem. “It is the vibrancy and mystery of his dense fractals that resonates beyond the canvas, wall or screen.”
At the same time that his work was evolving, New York was taking its toll, and the South, where Marshall has extended family, beckoned. Raleigh seemed an ideal spot to land for the usual reasons: good schools for his two young sons; cost of living; climate; the beach and mountains.
One warm evening in early May, Marshall is sitting on a curving, white leather couch in the main gallery of Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum. CAM’s annual Arthouse party is under way. Well-dressed art lovers carry cocktails and vie for an introduction to the evening’s featured artist, whose paintings are on display and up for auction, and whose video art is projected in geometric whorls on giant walls. Marshall is polite but reticent. Parties and small talk are not his scene. “I tend to like to hide,” he says. In general, “I keep myself removed; I want to go to bed. I’ve got to get up and work.”
That night, prints of his work and a surfboard and bicycle he painted and donated to the museum net $15,000 for its foundation. He’s glad to use his work to raise money, but he’s hoping to do more than that. He wants to “get the community involved, the people involved” in making public art here.
This is a new emphasis for him in Raleigh, where Marshall has kept a studiously low profile. It’s also new for him to be creating work for its own sake and not just for commission. In the last few years, demand from serious collectors has kept him busy, but out of the public eye.
Back on his own turf, he’s in his element. This quiet, leafy neighborhood of big houses and spacious lots isn’t exactly filled with fellow artists, and that’s just how he likes it. “I love it that my neighbors are all from different backgrounds,” he says. “Their worlds are fascinating to me. I don’t need to be around a bunch of other tattooed knuckleheads. I don’t like scenes. The clique thing got old after junior high.”
He has art from fellow artists around – including a trio of “companions” by hot New York street artist Kaws – but none of his own canvases.
At one of the two sticker-covered tables that make up his garage studio, Marshall is finishing up a painting due at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood for Art Truancy, a 20th anniversary show honoring Juxtapoz magazine.
The canvas in front of Marshall resembles an oversized psychedelic jigsaw puzzle – dozens of lines, triangles, points and shapes made of hair’s breadth multicolored lines intersect at fractured angles. One jagged white piece remains unpainted. “What goes in here?” he asks, touching the blank spot. “I have no idea. I like to paint without a plan. It’s an evolutionary process from beginning to end.” Lanky in a Nike T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, and with his bare arms and legs covered in tattoos that end at his wrists and ankles, it’s easy to see why parents at his kids’ school assume he’s a professional athlete. “One thing I like about painting,” Marshall says, “is that you figure it out as you go.”
When he begins a canvas, though, he does something pretty linear –literally. He bisects it in two, “right down the middle. I like to split a piece.” First he paints one half – not on an easel, but flat on the table before him, so he can get the angles and pressure he needs for his precision linework – and then he paints the other. “Figuring out the color puzzle” is what occupies his imagination. “I have this color here,” he muses. “How do I push that color back?”
He’ll put in 150 to 200 hours figuring out the piece by the time it’s complete, often in 12-hour stretches, on his feet, forgetting to eat. He also forgets what day it is when he’s painting and his boys are with their mother – the kids split their time between two households – and says he “tries not to think.” Sports radio provides a soundtrack for his solitary focus.
He admits: “It’s physically and mentally exhausting.”
Hundreds of bottles of paint surround him, more than 100 hues of ChromaColour paint made for animators to paint on to transparent celluloid. Production stopped on the paint 2½ years ago, he says, and some of his bottles are 10 years old, but Marshall is eking out his supply, because it’s perfect for the kind of art he makes. “It’s opaque, it’s super flat. Literally the best paint ever.” He’s considering taking it to a chemist to deconstruct the formula so he can re-create it himself. In the meantime, “a little goes a long way.”
If he seems sanguine about the prospect of his paint drying up – the key tool in his artist’s chest disappearing – that’s probably because he believes in what another person might call fate. It’s served him well.
“I never set out to become an artist,” he says. “I think sometimes the universe shoves you in a certain direction…Art just kept finding me.” So, he might say, has Raleigh, and this refuge where he’s come to live and work.
“I need this.” He gestures out big windows to a vast backyard. “I need green things in my life.” He’s planted more than 500 trees and plants here. Camellias and crepe myrtles, peach trees, tea olives, and apple trees. “Any artist will tell you – you become aesthetic about everything.”
Including the city you’ve adopted as your own. Marshall envisions a Raleigh with destination art, murals that draw crowds, creativity forging community. “Art tourism is as valuable as anything else” he says. He’s optimistic. “I think this city is only heading in the right direction. I want to find a way to be a voice in this town.”