Interview: James Meyer
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Snowball: A Wall of Memories by James Meyer
1) Can you introduce yourself? When did you first attend SVA, and what prompted you to return to school?
I am James Meyer. I am an artist returning to school to get my degree, and I have worked in museums and for other artists.
I am usually reluctant to say when I was at SVA because it was so long ago. When I have told people, they are stunned; there are actually 2 teachers who are still here from that time.
I initially went to SVA from 1980 to 1982. I was 17 when I first started.
(Work In Progress)
2) What is your experience with the penal system and the criminal justice system in the United States as a Latinx person/artist? What struggles did you go through as the system reacted against you?
I would like to just say before I answer these type questions that I am no way qualified to represent this group, and that the answers are based on my personal experiences. I work with a prison arts group that shows art work from people still in prison and every year we have a exhibition on Governors Island. The name of the group is Escaping Time.
I grew up in a predominantly white town on Long Island. I would often get pulled over and harassed by the police on a regular bias. It wasn’t until I went around with my girl friend (who is white) that she told me that this is not the way people are treated.
And it also made her realize that she was raised to question authority and assert her self ( I wish there were a better word for white).
I worked in the arts for a number of years for artists and museums. And then I got involved in a white collar crime - it was over my head and out of character for me, and it happened slowly. I was sent to prison for 18 months just under years and while was there I was welcomed by the Latin community that helped me with little things like food and clothes. But I was really shocked at how young a lot of them were and how much time they were doing. There was a group of sweet kids who would schedule cartoons to watch on Saturday mornings and the room was full. They were all 18 to 22 years old and they were in for 10 to15 years. I taught drawings classes twice a week and they all wanted to draw realistically. I helped them make drawings of their family and girl friends. I eventually published a book of my drawings, more like a dairy.
(Prototype snow globe)
3) How are race and ethnicity related to criminality in the United States? How is the criminal justice system biased against black and brown people? How does it favor white and upper class people? Does your work portray such differences in treatment and policies?
I am Adopted and I was brought up by working class German parents. They really didn’t understand that my adopted brother and I were having problems with the police and teachers.
I am comfortable in both worlds. I can see that there is an ingrained fear of black and brown people that is not based in experience, so they are targeted by the police and teachers in the public schools.
There are a lot of catch 22s in the US - if you get arrested, and you don’t have a lawyer to help you, a lot of times you will sit in jail for a few days or months until you can raise bail. Because of the way a lot of states are structured, if you cant post bail to guarantee your return, you sit there.
I mean, this is why there is finally some push back about all these laws. But as someone like myself you feel like you can’t say to much for fear of going back. And many states make it so we cant vote to change things.
James Baldwin, the civil rights writer, wrote a wonderful essay on how both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King needed each other vision to make civil rights work, but they also both died for this cause. And that is the thing that is scary about moving this forward. It is that the group that is in power is not ever going to open the door and share.
Self Portrait 2: Implicit Bias by James Meyer
4) How do you see the connection between the story of Frankenstein and the experience of being in prison?
I guess the main thing is the fear of the felon - the fear of people who are sent to prison. I had a fear of them too and then I got there and you realize they are just people trying to go home trying to get back to their families. The strain the families at home are under to stay together is tremendous, and most don’t make it.
I read Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein which is very different than the popular movie, In the Book Frankenstein the Doctor is upset that he has made the monster and runs away, leaving the monster. On site, everyone just tries to kill the monster all the time, so he is forced into hiding, and he finally hides near a family and learns to talk and sees how families love each other. He goes finding Frankenstein and asks him for a mate so he can live away from people as they will never get past the way he looks. The doctor refuses and then everything goes sideways from there. But their is this implicit fear people have of just destroying things they don’t understand instead of taking the time to listen.
(Work In Progress)
5) Is there a link between the way the criminal justice system operates and the logic of domination if the criminal justice system works by the threat of retaliation and bigger consequences? What is the alternative to the current state of the criminal justice system? Does your art reflect this kind of alternative vision?
There is no effort to rehabilitate people who are sent to prison in the US. They are shamed and told they will never amount to anything. When you get out you are still shamed and watched. It is very hard to move past these things.
In the US, there is this of punishment and not on rehabilitation.
And for the most part in a domestic dispute or a mental health dispute, the police are sent, and they are not properly trained to deal with any of these things, so it always goes bad. I don’t believe in defunding the police, but they should not be sent to fix everything. The police only deal with problems so they have a prudence, and they think everything is a problem, and everyone is lying and is hiding something because that is what their experience is.
My art does not present an alternate vision but is meant to start a talking point.
Cereal boxes by James Meyer
6) What do you think about the way language determines the way images are read and interpreted, although more often than not visual experiences cannot be fully explained or described by words? How do you explore this dominance of language in determining reality through your work?
I have lived though several different visions of the inclusion of language and images. I feel that they are helpful to each together - what culture the artist is from effects what the art works mean and from what position they take.
A perfect example was last year in junior seminar a young artist was missing his home and he made a video of him on the streets of New York and a mountain from his home and city lights in the back ground played a song titled, "Auld Lang Syne," which is a song that is played in the US on New Years Eve. However, it was his national anthem.
The students from the US and the Professor thought is was a light-hearted video, and the artist and the students from the country where he was from saw it as a sad, melancholic video about being home sick.
There are sometimes like, when you hear an opera, the feeling is conveyed without the text, but, in other case, the background and information are very helpful to the message. Some people can use their background to get close to the artists' ideas, but most people don’t look at things that closely.
Self Portrait 3: Implicit Bias by James Meyer
7) In your work and philosophy, is there a connection between the way language cannot fully describe reality and how a legal interpretation can misconstrue the innocence or the guilt of the accused in the criminal justice system? How is the image a form of truth for you as a person and an artist?
I use the accumulation of writing to create a formula by which to understand an idea, a song, or a poem to demonstrate certain ideas. But, by using them as a reference, you bring them into the conversation to understand an artwork, but, as I said, when looking at an artwork, you have to look at the culture from which it came and the position of the artist. Other Artists have used a short hand of cultural references, such as Roslyn Drexler, Warhol, Rauschenberg, etc.…
Snowball: A Wall of Memories detail 1
8) What do you consider to be your best work or series of work and why?
I always think the one I’m working on is the best because I get so excited about what I’m working on. But then you’ll see something you’ve finished, and you see new connections that you didn’t see before. The pieces I’m working on now are about memory and how we remember events. I picked some images randomly to work with, and, as I work more and more with them, they gain meaning. I tend to work in very long cycles - it takes a year or two before I’ve understood what I’ve made completely
Snowball: A Wall of Memories detail 2
9) What do you seek in your work in terms of completion? What do you attempt to achieve in terms of color, form, and meaning? When do you say to yourself that the work is done?
I start thinking about what to work on, usually while I'm at work, so by the time I’m in the studio, it has direction. And then, assembling the ideas slowly, the project comes to a place that I understand it enough to talk about it in a real way, that isn’t just gibberish. Because I am confident in different mediums, such as watercolor, steel, casting, etc., the idea drives the medium I will work in. You have to learn to stop before you think you are finished, so you can get some distance, and, when I come back, I often forgot what I thought I had to do on it, or sometimes you can see something that is awkward that you want to change, but I think its important to stop before you think you are finished.
Snowball: A Wall of Memories detail 3
10) Who are some of your favorite artists? What about their works, processes, and their personal journeys inspire you?
Spencer Finch, James Terrell, Robert Rauschenberg, Kiki Smith:
Spencer finch and James Terrell are about the use of technology in the art making, Rauschenberg is known for his spirit and sense of making, and Kiki Smith is known for her sense of looking at the human nature.
Snowball: A Wall of Memories detail 4
11) What are your next steps as an artist? What do you want to accomplish in the distant future?
I am applying to graduate school, and I don’t know beyond that.
The art world had long out grown its provincial ideas, of seeing everything in person. Suzanne Anker (dean of fine arts at SVA) has said that the pandemic has changed the way things are in the art world, and I do think that is true.
I make large outdoor sculptures, and I have been in 3 exhibitions this summer mainly because it is one of the few things that people can still see.
Last year many professors were still saying that you had to go and see things in person; I do feel that there is something to be said about that but also that is unrealistic as there is so much to see.
When I started if you lived outside of NY no gallery would consider your work, now that has gone away.
2 years ago Eric Fishel wrote an odd book, basically complaining that the art fair had destroyed the idea of the exhibition. I do agree with that, but all this other stuff leaked into his book about how the focus of the art world was distracted by the inclusion of female and artists of color and that he had missed out on the real boom that Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons had cashed in on. It was really eye opening to his over privileged position.
His idea was that there wasn’t enough band width for museums, critics, collectors to pay attention to everything and so it was diluting the focus. He gave a book tour to my small town (as the director of MOMA lives here), but its was really disturbing. So in a lot of ways I think something had to happen to make the art world change in a significant way.
Snowball: A Wall of Memories detail 5