The Last 10 Percent: A Conversation with Grey James

By John McIntyreMay 31, 2019

The Last 10 Percent: A Conversation with Grey James
GREY JAMES can — perhaps unintentionally — sound visionary in talking about his art, as though he’s driven forward by an almost compulsive, open-ended project. Ten years ago, he said, “I have no idea why I paint. I have no idea why I paint what I do. I’ve been painting the same thing, the same set of ideas and by the same means for over twenty years.” A lot can happen in 10 years, and while he’s still circling the same themes (“the male nude, lemons, the sky, the sea, the horizon”), using the same means, his circumstances have changed substantially on the personal level. His new work reflects those changes. The year before his comments, he’d come out as trans to the people in his life. By 2015, he’d begun testosterone therapy, a development that figures heavily into his new show at Bert Green Fine Arts in Chicago, fittingly entitled Testosterone. The nudes return, this time in more assertive postures. James has said that “painting for me is about occupying space,” and the figures in his work seem newly emboldened to occupy the space around them. And while he calls himself “some slob nobody artist,” there’s every reason to see his work as deeply relevant to this cultural moment. And cultural relevance aside, there’s an accumulative power to the work James makes, a gradual acclimation to his color palette, a realization that he’s quietly arguing for reflectiveness and attention to detail. The subtleties underpinning his series work, the gradations and nuances in color, scale and form, are worth regarding at length. And his faith in and commitment to the creative process — to maximizing what he can get out of the last 10 percent of the time and effort he devotes to a piece — should endear him to makers of all stripes.


JOHN MCINTYRE: Can we start with how you came to this moment as an artist and a person? Your emergence as Grey James, so to speak? And I realize “emergence” isn’t the preferred term here, but I use that word for a couple of reasons with you. One, I’m thinking your comments in The New York Times, when you said that transitioning, among other things, is for the privileged, and that standard framework can feel like an additional obstacle or judgment. And two, because it kind of tracks with the nudes in your work — shadowy, sometimes almost fog-shrouded figures that, over the span of a handful of images, seem to emerge clearly.

GREY JAMES: It was like the world’s longest emergence, too! Maybe all that shadow stuff is the foggy morass from which I slowly — seeped.

In general, painting for me is about occupying space. Or the space I get to occupy while working. We occupy space together. We step into each other and out of, sometimes we’re connected, sometimes I’m the observer.

But I’ve always been very adamant the paintings be not about me. I’m some slob nobody artist, who gives a rat’s ass? I look in it for the moment it is our story, moving it from my ghetto into the greater realm. Archetypes, collective unconscious, like that. What is the moment of this thing that makes it this thing? The better I find that connecting moment, the more successful the painting.

Though I did spend a lot of years looking for myself in my paintings, like Dr. Frankenstein looking for his monster. Or a much older and tired Narcissus seeking his reflection. Mostly it was the many, many years of emergence that really drove the arc. Time.

And a lot played into the timeline. It’s 2019, I’m 58 years old right now. Transgender didn’t exist when I was a kid, and I wasn’t creative enough or bright enough to fill in that blank. It came in bits and pieces, each unconnected to the next. Like being 15 and wanting a hysterectomy because I knew I would never have a baby. Like the despise I had for my breasts at 17. Like watching Casablanca and wanting to be Rick, not Ilsa. I was too dull to put it together.

At first blush, that sounds self-critical to me, “I wasn’t creative or bright enough to fill in that blank.” But it’s not quite that simple, is it?

No, there were a lot of layers. I didn’t grow up in an LGBT-friendly household. My born-again Christian mother saw it as an abomination, and my father saw it as an affliction to be kept secret. Eventually my mother would dismiss me all together. My father, I think, loved me; I wasn’t beaten, I was fed and cared for, but I also didn’t exist.

[By the] mid-’80s, I’m not part of my family. I’m a lesbian except I’m not connecting to that, or to the LGB-(eventually-T-et cetera) community, and I don’t know what is happening to me, why I feel this way. I’m ashamed by it. I can’t tell anyone.

I did that for a lot of years. We were into the 2000s before I heard the word transgender. And then: Oprah. I’m publicly owning this, it is much worse than being trans: admitting to watching Oprah. But she was doing trans-themed shows and I was glued to them. I’m watching these amazing kids own themselves where I could not, I’m listening to Chaz Bono talk about how he thought what he was feeling was what lesbians were, it’s right there and I know it, and I’m still not declaring myself.

But around this time, I did declare art. I’d been making art all this time. It was in the early 2000s that I decided to endeavor to show. To make it as an artist. It was through this process that Bert Green Fine Art and I would connect. The first painting of mine he showed sold. Big painting. I was less practical in those days. And more colorful. But I’m not very good with color. My paintings look[ed] like Easter eggs. I muted the palette.

How long after Oprah was it before you thought of yourself as trans, or talked about yourself that way to other people?

Around 2008 I started telling people near me I was trans, that I was a guy. Running parallel with this I was also cluing into the fact I wasn’t sure I actually liked women too much. It wasn’t until post-transition that I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t like guys, it was that the dynamic was all wrong.

[In] February 2012, my oldest brother, one of three, died from cancer. A magnificent human being. We were by this time scattered, each of us living private lives. I shopped for a dress to wear to the funeral. I knew who I was, but I didn’t want to make waves. I didn’t want to cause trouble. I don’t know if the gulf between me and all things female was too broad by this time, or if I really couldn’t find a dress I could stomach, but I would wear a suit. There were no comments.

We made the mistake of regarding a family tragedy as a defining moment; we would reunite at my father’s house in six months to rekindle lost years, lost familial love. I played my role, now no longer that occupant of it. I flew home [in August 2012] miserable and no longer wanting to sustain the corpse — mine and the extinct family narrative.

[In] May 2013, I start living as Grey James. Locally. I convinced myself it would be enough, that I wouldn’t need to transition. I identified as “genderqueer.”

So this was all very incremental, even once you’d declared yourself to people close to you?

Right. One year later, July 2013, again reuniting at my father’s, is the visit where occurs a miraculous identifying moment. It is over breakfast, over a single conversation and behaviors. I sit on the plane home thinking, “These are the people I’m protecting? I’m transitioning!”

[It isn’t until] November 30, 2015 [that I get] my first shot of testosterone. My father is still alive. I decide to never tell him; we were beyond proving things, and he doesn’t want to know. On our weekly phone calls, I blamed my deeper voice on being tired. In the end, I shaved when I’d go see him. Every few months I erased myself for him, sat by his bed, and let him have his need. He was no longer a parent at this point, he was just an old, dying man.

[Finally, in] August 2017, the legal paperwork is finalized. I am fully, legally, male.

[Less than a year later, in] June 2018, my father dies. His service is on Father’s Day. I come, for the first time, the whole family present, unshaved. I come out as a transitioned trans-man. Because it’s over. Now it is what it is. Also, I explain to many senior citizens who I am. I am deep in Trump country, but I am also in the South and at a funeral; everyone is polite. The entire weekend, no one gets the name or gender correct.

You’ve made the male nude a centerpiece of your work. That’s not the most common choice, but it does raise a couple of questions related to your career and the current cultural moment. You’ve made this fixation with the male nude sound almost visionary in the past, when you said you weren’t sure what it was about, but you’d been painting naked guys on a gray background for something like 20 years. But a lot has changed in your life since then — that was 2009, I believe — and it makes me think something the British novelist Nicholas Mosley believed about his work as a writer. He would write about an event in a fictional context, and it would later come to pass in his actual life. He called it “forward memory.” Looking back, was there maybe a sense in which you were either performing a kind of wish fulfillment in your work or fortifying yourself to take a big step?

This one is tricky. We’ve already talked about how the work at its best finds a place greater than my personal story, but I can’t also pretend the guys along the years haven’t been, in some way-manner-form-idea, surrogates. It took me a long time to know this. I didn’t start this knowing it.

I’ve been painting these guys for like 25 years. I was doing non-figurative work, something called me into the figure — it was only ever guys. I distinctly remember thinking I preferred them as the idea — versus women — because men wore their vulnerability on the outside (versus women’s vulnerability being internal). Men are physically constructed to convey the array of ideas I was interested in examining. But I didn’t see them, for a long time, as anything beyond a means to a way. They remain that, they are architecture and design; it is my vantage point that has shifted.

There’s been a discussion in recent years about the primacy of the female nude in art, and whether its time has — or should have — passed. As someone dedicated to the male nude, what’s your take on this development? And what would it mean to you if a transgender artist was part of a vanguard of male nudes as the female nude recedes from that place of prominence?

Old heterosexual white guys like painting naked ladies, it’s been the singular story of art history fed us. Great artists, great paintings, some landscapes and food and other ideas, not the only game in town. Just the one we know, the one taught to us as The Official Art History. Anyone else was relegated to the cheap seats, the sub-artists: African-American Artists. Female Artists. Never just Artists. We all knew who the real Artists were. Outside the decided aesthetic or the riding narrative, forget about it. The cultural shift that is happening, and based in current politics, is that all of us who took this narrative for granted minus any challenge whatsoever to have to examine who got left behind because it wasn’t us are now getting our first glimpses of our own privilege. Tarana Burke launches “Me Too” 10 years before Alyssa Milano gets it into the public conversation with just one tweet? Who are our storytellers, and what is the narrative, and how many have we left behind?

So naked ladies, great, but I look forward to more people at the table. More stories that are as legit as any other. A redefining of valid, a broader eye toward the definition of art. And no more sub-artists.

The lemon paintings that are part of your new work were striking to me for their intense color. You’re usually pretty restrained and judicious with the use of color, so they feel a little different to me, a little more exuberant. When did you start with the lemons as a recurring theme?

Go figure, people love lemons. Every show I’ll do a handful of lemon paintings and maybe you don’t want the penis, but those lemons are pretty. So the lemons pay for the penis. I can recover my costs with the lemons.

The lemons I first did while living in New York, in my first studio. I decided they were traditional and I should do that. I’m perpetually broke, so I gave them to family members for Christmas. In recent years, revisiting some of these people’s houses, I’m seeing those lemons on people’s walls from 25 years ago and I’m like — why did I stop doing lemons? They’re entirely enjoyable to paint. Very relaxing, very zen. So the lemons were revived. We’re stuck with the lemons for a while.

So you’ve entered this new phase personally and as an artist, but the lemons are a constant. Aside from them, what feels different about the new work, about making it?

The other shift is much more subtle, and I’m impressed you could even notice it. So I begin injecting testosterone late 2015 and painting Testosterone early 2017. I am physically coming into myself and also thinking about moving my work forward and what it needs for that to happen. One of my college professors would always talk about the last 10 percent, how the first 90 is busy work, anyone can do the first 90; it’s in the last 10 where it happens. Over the years, I might have let a weaker moment go because I was afraid if I went in to fix it, I would lose the good 90 percent around it and still not get it, and then I’d have nothing. So I’m looking at my weaknesses, my doubts, my insecurities, and no longer accepting their presence in the work.

You’ve said your work, its repeated themes, might seem banal and monotonous. The nudes in particular, though, seem to me anything but monotonous at times. A number of them appear in assertive, or even aggressive poses. They command the eye, it seems to me. Is it a stretch to think of these nudes as a kind of imperative, an insistence on being looked at, broadly speaking?

I don’t intend for the guys to challenge in the way of, say, the woman at the center of the Manet painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. The rebellion or assertiveness is that they exist at all.

When Bert and I started out, he would say, “Penises don’t sell.” But they are an essential component. I’m not painting veins, they’re not throbbing. It’s just another motif that communicates. Lemon, penis. A lot of people will only ever see them as penis paintings. Men have been painting female nudes since forever, but the penis is verboten? Too queer? Too ugly? Too pornographic? Challenging? By whose terms and rules?

Are you conscious of echoing or nodding to other artists? In the case of images like the underwear paintings, I think of Jim Dine, right off, his robes. The impression your series makes, though, is more contemplative. Certain ones of the male nudes bring to mind Schiele, and the indistinct faces can bring to mind things by Max Neumann. But this could just be me picking at threads that seem to link artists whose work I consistently like. Whose work do you seek out when you’re working? Or do you avoid certain work altogether? Who do you turn to when you feel stale and unmotivated as a way to quicken your pulse, to get started back working, or wanting to work?

I like Jim Dine and he was high on the list in college, but it was Andy Warhol that had the biggest influence on my approach — working in series and multiples. Jim Dine and tools, robes. But with Warhol, he was so smart about it, running these multiple images and hanging them together, and you’d have some in there that were pure garbage, or that didn’t read, but their neighbors carry them and fill in the blanks. I love that.

The artists I dig I paint nothing like. Cy Twombly, Franz Kline, Basquiat — from whom, yes, I lifted the crown. He had a solo show in Los Angeles and it just clicked, and I kept it and I try not to mimic but to make it my own. I don’t know what the rules are about that stuff. Sargent and Matisse and a lot of the really old guys. I love lowbrow art.

I’ve had to learn who I am versus what I like and am attracted to. For years, I wouldn’t look at other people’s art because I was too afraid of going down their rabbit hole. My own thing is strong enough now. Now I want the input.

I’m only ever really stuck when I don’t know where to take it next or if I think what’s there is too precious. If too much time passes and the work-fairies haven’t shown up to paint for me, the best thing to do is to go in there and fuck it up. It’ll either be better or it will be so much worse it becomes a much more obvious fix.

I’ve made work without joy. I’ve made work I don’t like. My great fortune is it never stayed that way. I’ve always found my way back into the work, or maybe it’s always found me. Right now, I have maybe half a dozen paintings in my head, waiting their turn. Patiently. It’s a nice place to be.


John McIntyre has written for The American Scholar, The Economist, Brick: A Literary Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications.

LARB Contributor

John McIntyre has written for The American Scholar, The Economist, Brick: A Literary Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. He was born and raised in Tennessee, and now lives in New Jersey, home of America’s best Portuguese food. Follow him on Twitter @jtmcntyr. 


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