Keep it in the Family

THEFOURTH is proud to present multimedia exhibition “Keep It In The Family '' comprising a collection of small and large scale works on canvas and paper alongside photography and video installations by the talented British born artist Alexander James. The body of work is a mesmerising chronicle of past and present experiences within urban environments and the people inhabiting them. The exhibition asks what defines a person's identity in today's world by probing subcultures in the city. Alexander James unpacks the notion of personal identity by nostalgically exploring his own childhood memories through representations of familial memorabilia. The artist combines recollections from his youth with that of his public observations to construct a seductive dream-like reality. “Keep It In The Family” is the very first product of the GorgeousFOURTH artist residency programme, a collaboration between THEFOURTH gallery and the Gorgeous George hotel in Cape Town, South Africa.

In this exhibition, “Keep It In The Family”, James focuses his attention on the city of Cape Town. He draws inspiration from the cityscape as well as from the natural beauty surrounding it. Coming from a major metropolitan city, he resonates with the vibrancy and chaos within urban environments and aims to capture these elements in his work. This body of work particularly focuses on the bustling area of St. Georges Mall where the artist’s studio is located, honing in on the restaurants, bars, markets and most importantly the people that make up the fabric of Cape Town. The artist interviewed and conversed with people in the area surrounding his studio, observing public life, transcribing conversations and sketching in prelude to painting. His creative process was fueled by navigating his way through the surrounding area and becoming influenced by the sights, smells and sounds of the inner city. These meanders produced a visual diary of photographs, sketches and social encounters to add to the artist's ‘memory bank’ on which he draws when creating works of art.

In a direct response to his surroundings, James deconstructs and reimagines the city to create an abstracted reality for the viewer. The cityscape of Cape Town is often suggested in his paintings, for example the Golden Acre Office Tower by Louis Karol emerges from flurries of pastel colours alongside awnings from the Adderley Street Flower Market in “Voices in St.Georges Mall”. The artist also uses text to express popular culture in the city center, such as the Coca-Cola motif in “A Bow Tie and A Missing Heel”. With James’ intimate visual descriptions of the people around him the artist examines fluidity of identity and the versatility of appearances in urban subcultures. He captures the individual character of people by describing their stances, body language, facial expressions and style of dress as seen in the work “Between Us, Is Them”. The characters in the surrounding community are evident in his series of small format portraits, such as “Nathaniel”. Being just under life-size the portraits are not dissimilar to a human face and the viewer is forced to step closer to these works, creating a more intimate viewing experience with the characters. 

Through a myriad of captivating colours emerge figures and faces that James has encountered in both London and Cape Town. James’ expanded colour palette is encouraged  by the aged, discolored and bleached signage found in store front windows in St. Georges Mall and aims to channel the atmosphere of the street. The chaos and hustle of daily living is expressed in the movement of the gestural brush strokes of the artist. In a process of abstraction and fragmentation he uses a bright unnatural colour palette to describe his subjects in the tradition of les fauves such as Maurice de Vlaminck. As a part of his creative process, he sketches his compositions on paper before painting on canvas, after which the small canvases inform the larger formats. The artist focuses on shadow and texture by working the surface of the paintings through a process of addition and subtraction, allowing him to inform detail into the visual imagery. The paintings are thick with impasto paint application, whereby he often uses their surface as his painting palette building it up by mixing colours in layers. In contrast the artist playfully leaves parts of the primed canvas raw in places. In order to achieve the soft and otherworldly quality present in these works the artist scrapes and wipes away the layers of paint in areas as seen in “A Little Birdie Told Me”. He denies the viewer a horizon line or a single vantage point to further the abstraction. The characters seem to float in space, untethered to place or time, belonging to a dream or a memory as is apparent in the work on paper, “Memory Bank”.

The artist’s vibrant body of work is reflective as his own memories and personal narrative are interwoven with that of his subjects’. His fascination with personal identity becomes reflexive in the nostalgic installation elements of the exhibition. In the video installation “Memory Bank”, the artist has compiled a montage of roughly three hundred selected images to show snippets of key experiences in Cape Town and London as well as from his childhood that inform the works. In particular he makes reference to Shabbat dinners shared with his family every Friday evening growing up. He revisits childhood rituals and memories that comprise the framework of his personal identity and sense of belonging that has been lost for a number of years. In the pursuit of the guiltless innocence of childhood James reflects on his experience of adolescence where his adult persona was formed. The second video, “At The Mercy Of”, consists of roughly eighty images of Coca-Cola branding that the artist encountered in South Africa, an element that becomes a motif in his paintings.

“Keep It In The Family” delves into the individual expression of personal identity through subcultures found in the city. After a year of isolation and separation during the global pandemic, the importance of human connection is more obvious than ever before. Human interaction is treasured and public life has taken on a new meaning entirely. While in Cape Town far from his hometown of London, Alexander James furthered his ability to encompass the cultural moment society is currently in. He found himself celebrating memory and community in his pursuit to comprehend human nature, arriving in a better understanding of not only society but also of himself.


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