After a Meteroic Rise in the Art World, February James Looks to Her Roots
The L.A.-based artist - whose work has graced album covers by Diplo, Santigold, and Lil Yachty - celebrates her parents and their deferred dreams in a new exhibit
By Michael Slenske
September 9, 2021
Shortly after she moved to Los Angeles in 2007, ascendant multimedia artist February James began making a name for herself—under a different pseudonym—as a makeup artist working for Vivica A. Fox and on music videos for the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Flo Rida, and Justin Timberlake. “I would go out to a club, see a director there, introduce myself, and just call them up,” says James, 43, as she walks me through her Boyle Heights studio, which is brimming with new paintings and sculptures for (Don’t) Take Me With You, her second solo show at Wilding Cran Gallery, opening September 11. “I didn’t have an agent or anything. I just knew all the faces of the people I wanted to work with.”
That she rose through the ranks of the L.A. beauty biz, then quickly made a name for herself in the international art world, all in a little over a decade, is no small feat considering James got her start in the Swamp, putting powder on politicos in the nation’s capital, where she grew up in a modest if artistic household in northwest D.C. Her mother wrote poetry and made figurative drawings; her father was a drummer who palled around with Gil Scott-Heron, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Isaac Hayes. Her parents, however, both set aside their artistic pursuits for “real jobs”—her mother went into clerical work; her father enlisted in the Navy and then took a series of political gigs working for the Reagan White House and Jack Kemp—to support their young family.
“All the people my father grew up with went off to be successful in whatever creative areas they were in and even now when my father is stressed out he’ll play music and I think, ‘Wow, you never really got to try.’ He went to the Navy because he thought, ‘Oh, I have a child now.’ My mom also thought, ‘I can’t pursue this,’” says James as she attempts to contain the restless energy of her ten-year-old son, Grayson, and their new puppy, Reggie. “When I started painting I never thought it would turn into a career because that’s not what you do.”
While James has been making drawings and watercolor paintings since childhood, she didn’t start working with her most successful medium, oil pastels, until about a decade ago. She did so after discovering the psychologically fraught portraits of the South African art star Marlene Dumas. Where Dumas used her haunting palette and whispery hand to inject pathos into tragedy-bound visages, including those of Amy Winehouse, Princess Diana, and Osama bin Laden, James sought to utilize similar techniques to channel the emotional weight of black figures embedded in her subconscious. Over the past five years her paintings have graced the cover of Diplo, Santigold, and Lil Yachty albums; she illustrated a recent T Magazine feature asking “Why Are There So Few Monuments That Successfully Depict Women?”; and she caught the attention of top collectors, curators, and dealers from Los Angeles to Milan.
“I started doing the oil pastels after my mother passed away and it was this cathartic release. It became something I had to do and she didn’t get to see any of it,” says James, leafing through a stack of watercolor portraits depicting ovoid faces with rheumy eyes, neon-hued hair, and shape-shifting mouths. “As a makeup artist, I was always fascinated with these actors and musicians and how as I’m stripping away all their insecurities they begin to reveal private things about themselves. There’s always something about the duality of self and what’s hidden. With this new body of work I’m opening up a little more as opposed to relying on so much emotional context.”
As we wind around the work tables in the center of her studio, James points to a large canvas, We Didn’t Talk Anymore After That Year, depicting her interpretation of a sixth grade class photo made with acrylic, oil pastel, spray paint, charcoal, and graphite. “It’s about those bonds you have growing up and then they break all of a sudden,” she says. “I was a latchkey kid, my mom was at work, and I would just have to call to say I was home, but my girlfriend and I would each call each other’s parents to say we were at each other’s house but we would catch the P12 bus to Iverson Mall.”
Those juvenile journeys are captured in another large canvas, P-12 to Iverson Mall, as are the D.C. faves in paintings like Chicken wings and mumbo sauce and GodFather of Go-Go (Chuck, Baby), the latter depicting the Beltway Go-Go legend Chuck Brown with a nod to his band the Soul Searchers. “He was the golden godfather of Go-Go music,” explains James. “He’s a super huge personality and I started out making this big painting but it’s sort of a D.C. thing, if you know you know, so I wanted to keep it small.”
Delving deeper into her roots, James investigates gender and sexuality in her family via the paintings Auntie Uncle and Auntie’s New “Friend.” She pays homage to her mother in a series of unfired clay 45s representing her mother’s favorite songs, a collaged video screened on bedsheets, and two assemblage sculptures, Wish you were here (a French overcoat festooned with brass address numbers, doorknobs, and spray paint) and We Ain’t Here No More (built from bronze apartment mailboxes wrapped in canvases screen-printed with photos of her mother when she was a teen mom).
“This is a photo with my mom and she ripped my father out of the picture and then put the torn pieces back in the photo album so nicely, which I thought that was so interesting, that’s such a permanent action,” says James, explaining that the new tattoo on her left arm is taken from a photo of her mother shortly after she was born. “She was pregnant with me when she was 16, he was 20. I’m sure they had resentment for giving up things that brought them so much fulfillment.”
Such “moments of unutterable fulfillment” to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. “cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.” Or in this case, art.