The abstract self 

Making the case for personal art

Think abstract art is all fluff and no substance?

Ask University of Montana art professor David James about the topic—realism versus the mind’s “ungrounded” inspirations—and you’re in for a pointed defense.

“Most people assume a painting, the quality of it, is determined by how much it looks like a photograph. If that was the case we’d just take photographs,” says James, sitting in his Turah studio. “Why bother, you know?”

According to the artist, whose recent paintings will appear in an upcoming First Friday exhibit at the Gold Dust Gallery, too many of his colleagues and pupils are subject to the rigidity and structure of the postmodern scene’s penchant for “found art.” James thinks representations of everyday objects—junk, natural items or objects categorized somewhere in between—keep artists from creating truly personal art.

“There’s a preference [at UM] for appropriation and post-modernist work, or figuration and realism, or expressionism—all of which is based on subject,” he says. “So many critics, students and, in my opinion, university faculty, almost universally confuse subject with content. Basically, I found myself asking, what or where can I contribute?”

Through years of teaching, James came to the realization that he could best serve students by enabling them to step over traditional boundaries. One of the best-known artists of the American abstract expressionism movement, Jackson Pollack, felt his paintings were more a dialogue than anything else. Pollock noted: “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing. It’s only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.”

James feels the same way about his own work. “I’ve always been interested [in asking], ‘What do materials do?’” he says. “Rather than have an outside subject and relevant materials, my interest has been in doing—in just making work.”

David James’ current collection, Our Western Landscape: Transformation and Theater, can be viewed Friday, June 3, at the Gold Dust Gallery, located at 330 N. 1st St.

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