James Angel: Turning Points, Counterpoints and other Pointed Measures in Unalloyed Aesthetic Experience. 

The work of James Angel has garnered widespread praise for more than a few decades here in Arizona and the level of recognition accorded to his accomplishments beyond the state has only grown with each passing year. Angel was a founding member of the artist collective 3 Car Pile Up, which originally had a shared work and exhibition space in the basement of Luhrs towers in downtown Phoenix. In the years that followed, this famous group of three, which included Randy Slack and David Dauncey, would move their base of operations to the very heart of the city, landing a new home for their studio and gallery inside the historic landmark that is the San Carlos Hotel. 

Here, they exhibited their own work alongside other contemporary artists, helping to create the next big moment of recognition for the Phoenix art scene on the national stage. The space that was hosted by 3 Car Pile Up was regularly awarded “Best Stop on Art Detour” and the studio became a well-known hotspot for showcasing some of the most challenging new art in Arizona at that time. Its legacy lives on today in Chaos Theory which was organized by 3 Car Pile Up as an art bizarre of sorts that brings the whole town together to celebrate the most influential creatives from across the valley. 

During this time and in the years that followed Angel’s work was praised by the most important art critics in the state, in including Nina Carapetyan, Kathleen Vanesian, Scott Andrews, Joshua Rose, Winter Holden, Lynn Trimble, Amy Grant, Jenna Duncan, Claire Lawton, Kristen Bauer and Nicole Royse. This sustained interest in Angel’s work brought him genuine recognition that extended from his time as a ceramicist in the 90s to the painter and video artist that we know today. But, it’s also important to note that it was no straight shot to fame however. 

Instead, it was part of an evolution that many artists from Arizona can see themselves reflected in. Afterall, Angel’s art practice is definitely part of the bigger story of what it means to be a working artist in Phoenix around throughout the turn of the century. This is because he started out as a bank-teller who was working with found objects, casting concrete sculptures and making mixed media projects of every imaginable kind. It would be a few years before he made the jump to producing art full time, but after being voted the most artistic employee in his branch, Angel knew the time was right to make a big move. 

It wasn’t long before he found employment at Phoenix Art Group, a company that is known for its incredibly well-designed art projects, both public and private. In the years ahead, Angel would become a lead designer there, a fact that bespeaks his immense talent and the vaulted respect of his peers. What Phoenix Art Group gave to Angel’s work was a solidity, virtuosity and compactness that still supports his most adventurous aesthetic choices today.

For many artists, working at Phoenix Art Group marked a rite of passage that lead to acquiring a healthy respect for craft as well as having conquered the ability to handle different sets of artistic conventions in spades. Some of the most talented painters, sculptors and fabricators in all of Arizona have passed through its hallowed halls at one time or another, and the company remains incredibly influential in the Southwest region for its reach beyond the state and the respect accorded to its high production values. That aside, Angel left his position there in just under five years having achieved the status of what the old-world guild would have called a “master craftsman”. 

As much as Phoenix Art Group proved to be a great experience in skill-building and being able to work with any motif, genre or design, Angel’s real goal was the continued pursuit and recognition of his work by the contemporary artworld. Beyond what he had already accomplished as a member of 3 Car Pile Up, along with laudable reviews in both group and solo exhibitions throughout the state, eventually allowed Angel to gain even more creative control of his future as an artist. In a move of marked commitment to his art practice, he began working with a number of well-respected art advisory companies in Arizona, Texas and L.A. in order to expand his collector base. Interest in the work was forthcoming, and Angel continued to expand the growing interest in his varied art projects well beyond the purview of the local scene. As a result, commissions, site-specific works, and the development of select collections all began to play a greater role in his artistic output around this time. 

The journey from having his first show at a library in Tempe to being recognized with an emerging artist award by Contemporary Forum and the Phoenix Art Museum isn’t just the story of James Angel’s art, it’s also the story of how the art scene that we have today was built by singular individuals who supported each other in a myriad of ways, and who created the kind of energy that birthed the largest Artwalk in the nation. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Angel has always been as interested in books like Joseph Campbell’s A Hero’s Journey, because making an art scene in the middle of the desert takes on truly heroic dimensions in order to be able to persevere, thrive and some days, to even just to stay alive. 

Toward this end, one could even say that it is the symbolic life of the species which continues to play a large role in Angel’s work which has a greater depth and breadth to it with each passing year. Graphic icons are a hallmark of Angel’s aesthetic, but they usually function as a form of artistic dispositif that would be most closely associated with the advent of “new” or “disrupted” modernisms. Thus, it is not uncommon to find grids that are skewed, lines that are lost only to be found again, and even a space in which the graphic can be exchanged for the gestural at will, giving us the feeling that Angel can play the valences of meta-modernism, or alter-modernism, and even digi-modernism against our own expectations without reserve. But one would be wrong to reduce Angel’s oeuvre to counter-intuitive moves that aim to overturn the kinds of pictorial games that are readily associated with the playbook of modernism’s greatest hits.

That is because Angel isn’t using these forms of mark-making in relation to the kinds of diatribes that rely on merely extending or denying any one tradition in particular. Rather, Angel adopts the use of diverse motifs because they are part of a bigger discourse about signs and symbols that ask us to question how we experience and engage with the attribution of meaning within any given visual idiom. This can be seen wherever modernist tendencies appear in Angel’s works because they are always implicated in being a part of the kinds of patterns that we use to communicate the convictions of our consciousness as opposed to say, notions like “medium specificity” or the “truth to materials”. 

Simultaneously critical and clinical, Angel’s different bodies of work are often focused on what pattern recognition, and gestalt experience in the broadest possible sense, can mean with regard to the phenomenology of human perception. How we access the world around us, how we think about multiple worlds from the micro to the macro, and how we conceive of their interactions in both our imagination and the wider reality that surrounds us, all hold a place of prominence in Angel’s pictorial and conceptual interests. 

Many of his more recent series, like “Sub-Systems”, “Local and Global”, and “Analogous Structures” speak to this intersection of dynamic forms and forces. Black holes and peripheral realities are juxtaposed on Angel’s canvases with interference patterns and desert iconography. His unique renderings of the Platonic solids alongside vestiges of the natural world, or the juxtaposition of bold graphic elements being drawn into compositional pop-up windows allow us to examine the many different ways that our minds create associations from within a wide spectrum of images as well as how the play of forms unfold over time. Series, iterations, and a bold sensibility are what the general viewer is most likely to identify with Angel’s aesthetic, although in recent years his work has grown more subtle, soft and sophisticated by engaging with the play of pictorial sensibilities from a wholly unique and deft vantage point. 

This is because any sense of hesitancy is no longer in evidence across the picture plane of his works, or rather, it has been replaced by letting the work be what it is, rather unapologetically. What is laid down by Angel’s hands sits squarely on the canvas with a kind of directedness that is evidenced only by other masters of the medium. Knowing when, where, why and how to start and stop a piece without any wasted moves are demonstrated by Angel’s hand Sui Generis. 

The touch accorded to affective depth; the pallet conscripted for punch and panache; a sense of arrangement that is both dialogical and embraces difference for its own sake give us ample proof that there isn’t an easy point of reference for locating the bounds of Angel’s art practice because he is a truly original voice. This retrospective of old and new works, which dates from 2006 to the present, speaks to what his many fans and patrons already know, which is that this exhibition isn’t just a Turning Point between themes and visual memes, but that it gives us a qualified look back at an artist who is always evolving, and who’s Turning Points have also been part of the bigger story of creative tipping points in our local art scene. 

Angel’s work has grown from its humble origins to represent a voice of elevated comportment that is in dialogue with cutting-edge contemporary art from around the world. When Angel moved from commercial projects to conscripting his own clientele, it was during one of the big moments of expansion and interest in the arts throughout the greater metro Phoenix area, but this also included a broader interest in ideas about art beyond the Sunbelt too. As Art Detour and Chaos Theory grew, Angel was there providing support in both an organizational capacity and as an artistic visionary. 

The inclusive aspect of his aesthetic is one that is reflected in his commitment to community building as well as in cultivating the democratic ethos behind the spaces, studios and artist collectives that he has been a part of in the past. Art and life have never been separate in the work of James Angel, rather, they are motivated aspects of one and the same practice. Thus, in considering mid-career surveys like this exhibition, it is good to point out that they are not just a means for looking back at all that an artist has achieved to date, but they also serve as a means of addressing imagined futures projected by the work, both then and now. 

In this regard, Turning Points asks us to cast two different images of Angel’s work, giving us the picture of a future anterior to our own, one that is more open in its aesthetic propositions, more complex in its conceptual intimations, and more welcoming for bridging the kinds of dichotomies that are often posited as a dividing line between design and fine art, between mass imagery and reified aesthetics, between common connotations and cosmologies of the unknown. Overturning such presuppositions, would itself mark a Turning Point in cultural politics related to how we access, discuss and debate aesthetic experience, not just in relation to a single work of art, but as a total world of art that grows just as much by leaps and bounds, through the emergence of new paradigms and radical claims as it does discrete and meaningful gestures. 

This contrast, of the being able to play the major and the minor keys associated with pictorial measures, up to and including the whole scale of compositional and chromatic notations, is nothing short of being the signature touch behind Angel’s most ambitious bodies of work. The difference being, that a mid-career survey gives us the opportunity to look back with a greater sense of appreciation, not just for where an artist has been, but for the many futures that the work will continue to open up by way of allowing an unalloyed talent to work without compromise. Angel’s work is one such example of taking the full measure of painterly designs and possible interventions, and transposing them into different mediums, juxtapositions, and overlapping worlds of associations, such that we know another Turning Point in how we think about Angel’s art practice is always just around the corner.

To see more images of the exhibition click on the Link.