Nicole James Has an Appetite for Destruction

by Rubén Palma
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Nicole James (b.1987, Los Angeles) is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York. 

James’s work rejects the notion that chaos and beauty are opposing forces, and instead seeks to unite them, offering the idea that the raw and unfiltered beauty of disorder is exciting precisely because it is so fleeting and unpredictable. She hijacks aesthetic elements of pop culture and online self-documentation to create large scale acrylic paintings that depict these liminal moments of disarray with nods to humor, rebellion, and life in New York City. 

Drawing on her decade-plus career as an advertising creative, and an adolescence spent on the nascent internet, she makes heavy use of cultural symbolism and visual storytelling, welcoming viewers into her own narrative while still leaving room for them to imagine themselves within it. 

Hi Nicole, thank you for sitting down with me. First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look for you in New York?

I’m a creature of habit and my studio is in my home (a blessing and a curse – IYKYK), so those two factors determine a lot of how my days unfold. 

On weekdays, I wake up at 7, do my morning routine, work out, and then sit down in the studio by 930 to get started. Typically I paint until around 1, and then my girlfriend and I try to stop at the same time and have lunch together, since she works from home most days too. Then I get back to it and paint until around 6pm, by which time my brain usually tells me to stop and do other things like eat dinner. I love to be in the studio and feel like I’m going crazy when I haven’t painted for a few days. 

On weekends, I try to get out and replenish my mental and creative reserves, so I typically do social activities with my girlfriend and friends. I also do a lot of inspiration gathering during this time, and form a lot of early ideas for things that I’ll make in the future.  

I’m extremely fortunate to still be able to participate in my other career as a creative director on a freelance level, so I also have periods of days or weeks where I take on advertising projects, and basically maintain the exact same schedule as my paint-only studio days, except that I do brand work for most of the day and paint in between meetings or after they end. 

Tell me about your background as a creative director. What was that journey like?

I moved to New York 13 years ago with $3,000, a bachelor’s degree in advertising, no plan, and a vague introduction to a creative director at BBDO named Jeff Greenspan, who after lots of pestering was kind enough to hire me as a junior art director and encourage my inquisitive and rebellious creative voice. I owe everything to that opportunity. 

I’ve spent the time since then as a creative at lots of different ad agencies in New York, which basically means coming up with ideas for ad campaigns, commercials, etc., and then working with directors and production companies to bring those ideas to life on set or online. I’ve been a creative director for the past six years, which means leading and managing teams of other people who do the same thing. It’s an awesome job, but it’s also a pretty intense 50+ hour a week job with lots of travel, which makes it really hard to maintain any kind of serious studio practice, especially as you become more senior. Freelancing gives me the space to still participate, but with a way less intense time and stress level, which has been really instrumental for my practice. 

Not a lot of emerging artists are coming from a background of a decade-plus image making career. That seems like something that would really impact your practice – has it? 

Yeah, substantially. Advertising is a song that plays only one note on the scale: desire. 

The scale has a lot of notes though, some of which are way more interesting to me personally, like chaos, and aversion, and anxiety. My painting practice gives me the opportunity to play any notes I want, so I play all of the weird and discordant ones that my hands have been tied from. 

The rebellion against the placid and serene is a huge element of what I’m doing, and I think that’s really coming from a reaction to my professional experience. 

There’s definitely a rebelliousness to what you’re doing. Where do you find inspiration for your paintings? 

I’m really interested in the potential for beauty in chaos. It tends to be totally unpredictable and not very long-lasting, so it’s difficult to chase or document, but it’s the spark that’s driving the whole fire here. I’m excited by the opportunity to take something that elapses for only a few microseconds, that could only be seen by a few people, and pausing that moment in time permanently, in large format, for everyone, forever. It feels like teasing time, breaking rules.  

Aside from that, I’m a music lover, so I think about a lot of what I’m doing artistically through that lens. I want to make paintings that feel novel, and exciting, but also punk rock. I’m trying to bring you a little bit of a Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Kathleen Hanna vibe, but in the white cube space. The latest body of work being titled Appetite for Destruction isn’t a coincidence; I want to evoke the flavors of danger and energy, of doing something a little bit new and spicy, of creating a body of work that the audience maybe doesn’t yet have a complete framework for. 

Your work features spills, messes, and people eating… general disorder. Is that coming from a desire to depict that chaotic microsecond thing? 

Absolutely. With the spills and the messes and negative moments, you see them all of the time, and they can sometimes have a really incredible beauty to them, and this very sudden tension – yet we don’t stop to consider them aesthetically or memorialize them visually, we simply clean them up as fast as possible. I like exploring that momentary interaction between attraction and repulsion, and creating these moments inside of the canvas that you want to reach in and wipe up, or change, or reveal, but are ultimately powerless to impact. 

Similarly, there are billions of paintings of food, but so few paintings of people eating. It’s this fleeting moment that’s a little bit chaotic, a little bit unflattering, a little bit vulnerable, but also so relatable and common. You do it constantly, you see others do it constantly, and yet it’s not really reflected in art. That feels weird to me, like a missing note that needs to be played. 

I want people to be lured in by the beauty of the image, and then pushed away by the details. 

Details are a huge part of your work. Have you always been detail oriented, and where do you think your attention to detail comes from? 

Creative directing is a really detail oriented job that requires meticulousness to survive, so a lot of it was definitely drilled in by that, but I also have zero chill in general as a human being, so I can’t imagine painting something that didn’t feel demanding and challenging for me every time I sat down. The still lifes give me the opportunity to really give 100% dedication to one object for a day or a week, learn the rules of that universe, and then jump into a totally different universe with the next object, so things always feel new and exciting and different for me at the easel. 

I know that you’re self taught, so instead of learning through painting school or other traditional channels, how did you get to where you are now? 

I’m a real ‘fuck around and find out’ kinda gal. 

I grew up on the early internet, taught myself to code, and promptly made a gossip website for my middle school that I got in trouble for and had to shut down. Then I taught myself graphic design on a pirated copy of Photoshop and became a paid designer before I even left high school, because I kept getting fired from restaurant jobs. I went to arguably the worst college for advertising (they literally shut it down), then got a ground floor job at one of the best ad agencies and learned the trade for real in meeting rooms while working with clients. I do my best work feeling around in the dark on the fly, when it’s fun and interesting to me, and feels like an adventure that I’m getting away with. If you try to make me do anything slowly, or the way it’s been done before, I fall asleep. I’m allergic. 

Because of this, pretty much everything I know about painting, I’ve figured out in the studio, on the canvas, mano a mano, just me and the paint wrestling around until things look right. That used to take a long time, a few years ago, but I find that the closer I get to my ten thousand hours, the faster everything seems to go, and the less reworking I seem to do. Each time I’ve started to feel like I’m getting the hang of it, I’ve made things more complicated, or scaled up, so I’m kinda always putting myself at a disadvantage on purpose to keep it exciting. I need that. 

When and how did you start painting?

I’ve drawn and painted for my entire life, literally for as long as I can remember. My mom always supported me, and would put me into art classes and camps as a kid, but I would sometimes get in trouble or kicked out for doing my own thing or not following the rules (which is part of why it seemed to make sense for me to go to college for something else). I always felt like art was about doing your own thing and being creative, but art teachers will aggressively disagree with this, because art class is about following rules and listening, and that attitude always kind of got in the way for me with formal instruction. 

I tried taking a weeklong painting intensive last year to up my game, and got a lot of weird reactions in crit at the end when I added things that weren’t in the very boring composition reference to make it more interesting, because I liked it better, as the artist. The teacher told me that she loved how confident I was and that I “didn’t seem to care about not being painterly” (help). I guess some people just aren’t cut out for art classes, I don’t know. 

How did your family influence your artistic mindset growing up?

My mom is one of the smartest people I know, but because she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college or pursue a business-y career, it was really important to her that I do those things so that I could have a good life. It seemed like I misunderstood what art was about anyway since I kept getting in trouble for doing it the way that I wanted to in art classes, so I took the hint, found a job that was creative, and felt like maybe weekend painting was more of my path. 

When I first started getting really serious about painting in 2020, I worried a lot that I had somehow wasted all of this time, and that other people who spent those same years painting were eons ahead of where I could ever be, and that it was unrecoverable, but I’ve learned since then that my experience in advertising honestly did an incredible job preparing me for the journey I’m on now, and taught me a billion things I use every day, so I guess my family was right in their own way after all. 

I understand you’re about a year into your transition from full time creative director to full time studio practice. How did that happen, and how has it impacted your practice? 

Like a lot of people, working from home in the pandemic enabled me to keep a real studio practice for the first time. I finally started sharing my paintings with other people in 2020, and realizing that I might have a shot at what I really wanted to do, paint, and from there I basically fell down the mental slippery slope of “what if I just tried being a painter?” totally uncontrollably, when previously I was more in the camp of “being a painter is unrealistic for me”. 

The whole thing has been very “what if you just called Taylor up”. 

In 2021, I transitioned from an agency role to a less intense client-side role to reduce my time commitment at work from 50 hours to like 30 hours, and then in 2022 I stepped away from full time work entirely and transitioned to freelancing, which allows me to spend around 75% of my weekday time in the studio. I primarily work on mission driven projects now, and things that are for women or the LGBTQ community, which is fantastic. I’d love to have the opportunity to do some creative direction within the arts, like working with galleries or museums. 

How has life been since then? What are your future plans? 

Honestly, it’s been great. I’m trying to encourage other people to put their 100% into the thing they really want, even if it doesn’t seem possible, because I’m having quite a go of it. I think there’s something really magical about giving your entire focus to something that makes huge feats feasible. 

In the past year I’ve been blessed to sell work to one of my favorite art collectors, participate in a few pretty exciting group shows (including one that got shut down by the cops for making the street dangerously crowded), and develop friendships with artists who I really admire. It’s been super rewarding, and self actualizing, to discover that my art resonates with other people. 

Future plans… I have an upcoming group show in May at IRL in New York that I’m extremely excited about, and I’m trying to meet ‘my people’ in the New York art scene, which is a slow burn because I’m coming out of nowhere. If anyone reads this and thinks we’d definitely be friends if we met, please DM me.  

Are there any artists you look up to?

I literally look up to all artists. I have so much love in my heart for everyone who is making and sharing their work. This journey has been incredible so far, and a lot of it is because of the people, and the connections I’ve made with them or the work they’re making. I could look at emerging art all day forever. 

There are literally too many painters to mention, but lately I’ve been really into Issy Wood, Rae Klein, Therese Mulgrew, Jeremy Shockley, Tali Lennox, Jeanine Brito, Alistair Canvin, Conrad Ruiz, and Hou Jianan. Perennial faves include Christian Van Minnen, Petra Cortright, and Marc Dennis

Photography is a big influence for me as well; Maisie Cousins is my favorite, but I also love Alex Wallbaum, Martin Parr, and Nadia Lee Cohen

I could go on for ever and ever. 

How would you describe a perfect day?

Wake up to a warm summer day where I can have all of the windows open. Paint something really good in the studio, and finish the segment I’m working on completely by the end of the day. See a really fantastic art opening, and then go out to a super delicious dinner afterwards with my girlfriend. Perfection. 

Last question: what song are you listening to the most right now?

Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine has been on my mind a lot lately. 

Nicole’s next exhibition will be a group show on May 19 to June 11, titled, “Fritto Misto“, at IRL NYC.

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