James Gobel's bears have a sweetness about them and a romantic line that feels Edwardian — like Aubrey Beardsley and Peter Max had a baby. A big-boy baby. He creates a wonderful historic Beartopia, and we would like to live there.
Born in 1972 in Portland, Ore., James Gobel received his BFA at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (1996) and his MFA at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1999). Gobel has had solo exhibitions at the UCLA Hammer Museum (2000); Kravets/Wehby Gallery, New York (1999, 2001, 2002, 2005); Marx & Zavattero, San Francisco (2008, 2010); and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles (2008). Recent museum exhibitions include "Surface Value," Des Moines Art Center, (2011); "The Mysterious Content of Softness, Rough Edges and Loose Ends," Bellevue Arts Museum, Washington (2011); "Embodying," Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (2011); "Pattern ID," Akron Art Museum (2011); "Underground Pop," Parrish Art Museum, New York (2010); "Las Vegas Diaspora: The Emergence of Contemporary Art From the Neon Homeland," Las Vegas Art Museum (2007) and "The Altoids Curiously Strong Collection," The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2005).
The Advocate: When did you first understand you were an artist, and how did that happen?
James Gobel: I studied art at UNLV as an undergrad where coincidentally Dave Hickey was teaching. An amazing art writer and cultural critic, who created an amazing environment for young artists with visitors like Jim Shaw, Jeffrey Vallance, Eleanor Antin, and Peter Schjeldahl. I could not help but stay intrigued after stumbling into a department with so many remarkable characters coming and going. I was never particularly artistic before studying it, I grew into it. It was the conceptual side of contemporary art practices that intrigued me. I have always been attracted to the visual arts, but had until then been entirely confused by them. And that is why I stayed, to figure it out. I found through art-making and experiencing art I could view the world through this new perspective.
The new show has German Expressionist influences, and there is a lot of rich historical material in your earlier work.
I have always found rich starting points in is historic movements for my work. The cast of my paintings reflects the “culture” I most generally appear to be a part of. Bear culture, chunky, generally bearded gay men, is what I am attracted to, it is what I know and am a part of, so I only find it reasonable to make them the players in my work. The narrative themes in my work always invoke issues of queer culture but simultaneously nod to more humanistic concerns as well. Usually, they are themes played out examining art history.
I listen to a lot of audio books while I work, and two years ago I picked up Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. That particular era and mode of thought at the time fascinated me. I began to reflect on the paintings of the time, and two artists floated to the top, Christian Schad (whom I knew very little about; my art dealer in LA showed me a book on him) and more famously known Otto Dix. I felt as though I shared something with them. Mostly formally, how they drew, painted, populated, and composed their works.
In my current exhibition, “Fancy Wonder Free,” I let the works of both artists serve as a starting point for me. Although several of the compositions are directly lifted from them, they were excitingly authentic experiences for me to reference. I did not hold myself to simply recasting paintings from this era; I also composed works very unlike Schad and Dix. But feel they stand up nicely to those works that were inspired by them.
Tell us about your process or techniques from the earlier line and flat color work to the current yarn and felt pieces.
I developed this technique in the mid 1990s when I had the desire to make a cuddly painting. I had been trying to make these fat scruffy men appealing to a larger audience. I took what I loved about them and tried to make the irresistible. An artwork that you could conceivably snuggle up to seemed a good place to start. Knowing the gentlemen I chose to depict were not necessarily the desire of my audience, I choose to appeal to other senses. By replacing paint with (acrylic or wool) felt, the image became softer, humorous, and able to solicit empathy. The colors of these fabrics are vibrant, but the paintings are not entirely felt. Many of the works have other acrylic painting elements as well as the occasional plastic button or rhinestone.
I paint what I love — big fat gay men!