EK Interview: James Rawson


James Rawson identifies the spoils of popular culture and its devastating/distracting effects. His boisterous paintings involve issues of digital voyeurism and they question the fulfillment that voyeurs receive from their action. Through this, Rawson explores the ubiquities of society and detachments from reality. Check out more of Rawson’s work at the EK Shop and his feature !

What was the last book from which you only read an excerpt? What prevented you from reading the whole thing?
It was Ralph Mayer’s The Artist’s Handbook. I thought it would be a good bit of bedtime reading as it’s fascinating but not wholly enthralling. Unfortunately, the TV won out on this occasion. The latest episode of the TV series Homeland came on, which my girlfriend and I were really engrossed in. Unfortunately, the book lost. I tend to get most of my literature through audio books that I listen to in the studio, so I rarely pick up a physical book.


Considering that you depict the loud(est) distractions of popular culture and mass society, what kind of life exists behind that frame? Describe the escape route to that location.
Some sort of impossible utopia. I don’t think you can have a mass society without pop culture influencing it. People are always going to be driven by their base urges to want more, be it wealth, glory, sex, etc. People are always going to want to escape their mundane lives. In a mass society, a good helping of technology provides the masses with imagery for distraction. Then you’ve got all the ingredients you need for ‘pop culture.’

I almost try to not give pop culture any sort of voice through my work, nor am I trying to suppress its voice; I merely want to hold up a mirror to it. I want to make work that reflects the kaleidoscopic way we take at images these days. People tend to view multiple things at once; someone may be on their laptop whilst using their smart phone, whilst watching the TV. The hope is that my pop culture references give people a nudge onto a thought path that makes them consider pop culture’s wider implications for themselves. I deal with imagery that already exists in the subconscious of society—iconography and images that already come pre-loaded with meaning. Any voice is one given by the mind of the viewer.


I understand that you left Norfolk for London, then returned back to your hometown. What compelled this return? How was your experience in London?
Mostly a financial one. It was at the beginning of my artist career and I was fresh out of university, so at that stage my artwork wasn’t really bringing in any money, as is the case for most young artists. I moved to London to be part of the art scene, but quickly found that London is so ridiculously expensive. I had to work 6 days a week in retail to just pay my bills. This left me almost no time to paint and no money. I realized that if I worked those hours, then I would never have the time to generate a body of work that would progress my career. I decided to move back home where I could live very cheaply and just work full-time on my artwork. At first, I lived with my parents, and about a year later, I got my own apartment with a studio space. So, my overall experience of London was not a good one. Don’t get me wrong—London is a great city…if you have lots of money.


Looking through your works, one of my first thoughts is that your subjects perpetuate gender roles and heteronormativity, themes that have increasingly sparked discussion. You are presenting the ridiculousness of these concepts while simultaneously perpetuating them. How do you compromise the two?
By trying to be impartial. The thing you have to remember is, I use found imagery as the source for my paintings. The reason they represent the stereotypes that they do is because of what is out there in the mainstream media. Only by removing them from their original context and jumbling them up with other images can we expose the ridiculousness of what pop culture has become and offer it up for greater consideration.
I guess when you make work about society, you inherently have to grossly generalize groups of people. I make work about what I see in Western society, a kind of overview. It would be an absurd task to make works about all different individuals/groups in our society; even if you tried, I’m sure you would unknowingly miss someone out. I guess, in a funny way, if someone did feel like my work over looked him or her then they should revel in the fact that they aren’t represented here. Surely, it’s good that they didn’t fall into the sinkhole along with everyone else? Of course, there are whole groups of people that these things don’t apply to, and I know that.


What emotions and thoughts do you identify and satisfy within yourself when/after you paint?
I guess relaxation. I’m at my happiest sitting in front of my easel. When I paint, my thoughts tend to come in two patterns. Either, waves of ideas for new work and/or thoughts about the meaning of what I’m painting. Admittedly, these can be slightly annoying, as I have to keep stopping to write them down. The other is like I said earlier: I listen to audio books whilst I paint, so often, my mind and thoughts are immersed in the story that I’m listening to. The activity of painting then becomes an almost unconscious one. I have often found that this can be when I do my best work. Alternatively, if I’m not listening to a novel, I’m listening to books/lectures on art, philosophy, sciences etc. I revel in the feeling of continuous learning.

On your website, you state that your work “confuses our perception of popular culture.” To confuse it would mean that at some point popular culture was understood. If that is the case, on what basis has popular culture been understood? What has not been understood?
It’s a statement more specifically to imagery of pop culture. When you take a character or image that is highly recognizable to most people and remove it from its original context, it is confusing. By placing it in a foreign situation, it then takes on a new paradigm. At that point you either make sense of the image by asking yourself, “Does it take on a completely new meaning or bring with it a former one?” Then you either take it’s existing or new meaning and ask what is its relation to the other images in the work.
In response to your question, “on what basis has popular culture been understood?”, I would say that I think most people would consider themselves to have a good understanding of popular culture, even if it’s an allusion. People often feel connected to society and a part of what’s going on in their world. What they consider as their understanding may be no greater than what Kim Kardashian’s latest Tweet is telling them. But, to that person that’s enough. That’s their interest. We are in a world where scientists, artists, and musicians are basically forgotten or seemingly seen as unimportant next to vacuous, talentless ‘celebrities.’ Then, you have a society where following someone makes you part of the times or what’s cool. This may be all that most people have in there lives—even if they have little to no understanding of the wider issues affecting our world.


Why not pin it right to the poster and say that your art addresses issues associated with capitalism, neoliberalism, digital voyeurism, and narcissism? Which of these concepts resonate the least with you?
I think they are all things that my work addresses. I wouldn’t want to choose between them. They all seem part and parcel of the same thing. You could argue that capitalism drives technology that it has given birth to social media. This has created a world of super narcissistic people sharing every mundane thing about their life, as if the whole world should care. The arrogance involved in thinking that anyone cares what you had for dinner is absurd. I remember the days when people took a photo without including their face in it. All this self-absorbed sharing provides the content to feed our digital voyeurism. When you combine narcissism and voyeurism with the fruits of capitalism, you create material and platforms for a society with an ever-growing wealth divide. This gives the ‘haves’ the means to parade their lives in front of the ‘have nots,’ creating a culture of celebrity worship. Normal people are given the message that anyone can be rich and famous, when really 99% won’t even come close. This has given rise to a bizarre trend of people having an over inflated sense of self-entitlement, feeling like, ‘why shouldn’t I be rich and famous?’ These people have done nothing to earn it. Reality TV shows, like the X-Factor, don’t help this. They give us the message that fame and fortune can be accomplished overnight. All this distracts people from the real key to success, which is nurturing talent and working hard.


Do you indulge in any of the ubiquitous trends that you depict?
Of course, I would like to say that I’m not affected by these trends, but I would never claim to be outside of society’s ubiquities. I said before that I reflect the world around me; this would be very hard to do if I was separate from these things. I think it would be almost impossible to be a true outsider unless you moved to the forest and lived in a wooden hut. After all, I was born in the late 80’s so I have grown up in a world that is coming to terms with the emergence of the internet, fast food, and TV. So, it would be wrong to not admit to being a product of these things.


What is the next project that you have in mind?
I have two projects of new work that are running simultaneously. First is a series of toy water pistol paintings. I discovered these in a pound shop. I found myself asking, “Why make a child’s toy water pistol look so similar to a real gun?” It made me think about our continuing detachment from reality, which you find with the image of the gun. I painted these toy water pistols on bright backgrounds that evoke a strong child like quality. I find it funny when people refer to them as “gun paintings”…I think that says a lot, doesn’t it.

Second is a series called Circles of life where I’m looking at the nature of collage and its ability to fragment images to the point where they almost become abstract.