© 2023 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Matthew James: One Artist’s Story

noe tanigawa
noe tanigawa

Matthew James combines painting and sculpture in his large three dimensional wall pieces.  You can see several around Honolulu now---the largest is a twenty-one by fifteen foot wall of blue wave patterns on the mauka side of Ala Moana Boulevard, on the Salt complex.  You can also see his work in Italy, Miami, New York City, Manila, Iceland, and other locations.  James left Hawai‘i for New York City seventeen years ago, and HPR’s Noe Tanigawa caught him at his studio in Brooklyn for these reflections.

Extended version of the interview with Matthew James. He discusses changes he sees in Honolulu, the NYC gallery scene and its demise, the rising influence of internet art, and the outsider way he built his career.

Artist Matthew James at work in his Brooklyn studio.

Artist Matthew James makes a living for himself and his family, he’s got a cool studio in Brooklyn, do you find yourself part of a vital feeling scene there?

James:  “Uh.  Yeah… I think it’s sort of a group game as well as an individual game when you’re out in New York.  There‘s a great community all around for sure, but for the most part I’m just kinda in my studio.”

Many think an artist's life is exciting and romantic, James' response is typical.  James has made his living as an artist for the last ten years, his bread and butter being large scale public art installations like the wall at the Salt complex.

James:  “One of my basic understandings about what it is that I should be trying to achieve as an artist is always trying to ask myself questions.  And one of the basic questions I had when I was doing these paintings was, what are some of the fundamental physical realities of our world?  Why do cells look the way they look?  Why does the universe look the way it looks? And a lot of that comes down to particle dispersion and fluid dynamics, and I thought it was sort of an interesting thing that I could replicate inside resin.”

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Matthew James. Pa’akai. (Detail of a mural on the Salt complex facing Ala Moana Boulevard.)

Particle dispersion, fluid dynamics, two forces he could experiment with in resin---showing how physics expresses its own esthetic.

“My generation and around that, like a lot of the people involved in Pow!Wow! I really give them a lot of credit for staying there and creating a scene that seems to be working somewhat, and is tied in with development and all that kind of stuff in order to try and create an actual economy in which they can exist.”

“Which is very difficult.  It’s almost thought of as an impossibility when you’re young, just to be an artist in Hawai‘i.  Scene wise, I thought it was a more developed and mature scene than when I left in 2000.”

James says he sees awareness in both corporate and government circles of the role art plays in shaping Hawai‘i’s international cachet.  He says the art world is in complete flux.  The star dealers with clients that artists used to have to woo, are aging out.

James says he see the same turning over of huge institutions in music, film, and publishing—probably a result of our ability to reach each other directly. 

“When I go back and just the limited exposure I do have to it, I really do see there’s an understanding that by doing these things you’re really sort of raising the bar for all of Hawai‘i.  The art, and having it really connect with cultural elements, also internationally is very important to raising the stock of Hawai‘i.  I think as long as people understand that and they nurture that, it’s going to be good for the future.  But there’s a lot cases where people think of it as a little bit of a joke, sort of an afterthought that you put on something afterwards.  I know that’s typically how it is, but i really do think that I see behavior inside both corporate world and the government sector, they’re starting to get the idea a little bit.  And whether that translates into an economy for artists out there, I don’t know.  But I think at least I’m seeing indications they understand this is important, it’s going to be important for the future of Hawai‘i moving forward and it’s place in  the world.”

Are you seeing more artists, your peers, able to make a living these days?noe tanigawa

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
Matthew James. Pa’akai. Mural on the Salt complex facing Ala Moana Boulevard.

James:  “Well. New York is a funny town, and there’s a whole argument to be made that the current state of the gallery system and the basic infrastructure artists used to exist in is a completely dead system at this point.  That could be argued, but I would say more art is being made and sold now than ever before, but it’s not necessarily going through the traditional channels of the art world as it was thought of during the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s.”

“It’s sort of an interesting period in art, and I think if you look at this past election, if you look at politics in general right now, it’s being heavily influenced by artistic movements and the internet is really sort of the hub of those artistic movements right now.”

“These weird memes and all these things that have been affecting politics to a great extent, those are all artistic movements, those are all pieces of art that people are creating, putting online, and getting out there.  It’s sort of a weird time to be alive as an artist, because thought the economy may not be thriving except for a very small percentage of artists, I think, conceptually, artists are more free now than ever.  You’re seeing that manifest itself in all sorts of weird and crazy ways.” 

James:  “You may not like the messages and you may not like the people, but what they’re creating, what they’re doing is art none the less.  It’s drawing, it’s literature, you know, it’s a very strange thing that’s happening right now.”

Because of his personal situation, James managed to create his career outside the usual gallery system.  (Listen to extended interview for details.) He says working directly with developers, contractors and architects was a natural outgrowth of his work fabricating pieces for other artists.  He says he has found it a very satisfactory way of working.

Matthew James. Pa’akai. (Detail of a mural on the Salt complex facing Ala Moana Boulevard.)

James:  “I don’t mind working hard, so as long as we’re respecting each other’s work, and it all goes down as planned, you should end up with a beautiful piece of art and I should be able to provide for my family.  Whereas the art world tends to be a little trickier, and much more nuanced in terms of how your personality meshes with gallery owners and with your patrons.  It’s a different system that I wasn’t able to navigate in very well.”

James:  “I think that’s (the gallery system) something that is actually fading kind of quickly right now.  A lot of the sort of big gallery owners who created these mega superstar galleries, they’re aging out and what’s happening is, Wall Street is actually buying up a lot of these galleries, or they’re breaking up or they’re shutting down, so you’re kind of seeing the death of an industry here.”

“I see that also replicated in a lot of artistic industries, whether it’s the music industry, the film industry, or publishing, there seems to be a general turning over of these huge institutions and I think that has a lot to do with people’s access to each other.”

I asked James if he could do what he does from Honolulu, he said he could, but it would be more difficult.  One thing he would love to see:  some of the unused space in Kaka‘ako, and elsewhere, devoted to studio space for artists.  Large works, he feels are essential here, to measure up to our awesome natural beauty. 

James does performance art and is working on a new art and literary magazine called Dagger, first issue due out later this year.  In Honolulu, find his work at Saks 5th Avenue in Waik?k?, Salt in Kaka‘ako, and online

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
Related Stories