DARYA KOSILOVA—By looking at your work, I’ll make the modest assumption that you’re fond of magazines, books, and newspapers?
JAMES GALLAGHER—I’ve always been a bit of a pack-rat when it comes to printed material. However, once I began to collage with photographic imagery I started to seriously stock up. I look for vintage photography books and magazines, clothing catalogs, sex manuals, textbooks, and anything else that lends itself to my aesthetic. I recently drove to an apartment on the Upper West Side and, for twenty bucks, I filled my car up with hundreds of Artforum magazines from the sixties through the nineties. They’re in storage until I can figure out what to do with them. In my studio I have flat files, bins, and shoeboxes full of paper, tearsheets, and scraps separated by size, and stacks of books everywhere. One thing I try to do is keep an intact copy of my favorite books. I’ll only cut once I have additional copies; Amazon is great for finding multiple copies of old books.
DK—So when did you start cutting everything to shreds?
JG—I was originally a printmaker. Logistically it was a challenge to get to a print shop every time I had an illustration deadline, so I just started cutting up my old prints to create new work. The first time was for Ear Magazine, an avant-garde music magazine from the late eighties/early nineties, and the piece turned out great. It got me an ongoing column assignment at the magazine, so I quickly realized that I was onto something. The surprising results that developed in my work really inspired me. And piecing things together turned out to be very therapeutic; it felt comfortable. Eventually I ditched the printmaking and focused completely on collage.
DK—A large portion of your work is very erotic… but not the sexy kind! Where does your interest in sexuality and the human body come from?
JG—Actually, I think it is the sexy kind. I try to be more abstract and suggestive when it comes to depicting sex. I like to leave it open to interpretation. And the reactions are very interesting. It’s like a sexual Rorschach test in a way. My work took a dramatically personal turn about 10 years ago when I was in the midst of an intense family situation. In a way, I was getting to know myself for the first time emotionally and sexually. So those subjects became the focus of my work. I was working things out on paper and expressing my thoughts and desires in small intimate collaged scenes.
DK—You deface almost all of the figures in your compositions. Are you trying to protect their identity or do you not want their identity to attach itself to the work?
JG—I tend to obscure individual features, traits, and even genders to focus more on the gestures and physical actions of the figures. I prefer that the physical interactions and body language tell the story in my work. For me, a face is too much of a visual “target” which becomes a distraction. Also, I’m trying to create a sense of excitement and mystery in my work. I think that the Internet has taken the mystery out of sexuality. I’m trying to bring it back. It’s like the thrill from a glimpse of something private, like an old sex manual that you might stumble upon in your parents’ bedroom. Sometimes the anonymous situations in my work feel like the free and easy days of the seventies when sexual encounters happened in underground clubs rather than on glowing computer screens.
DK—In general, how do you feel towards people who expose themselves to the public? And I’m not just referring to sex. Is the concept of shame and privacy something that you’re interested in?
JG—Lately I have been feeling really good about letting the world see some of my inner-self. I’ve been exposing myself through my art and also on my Tumblr, which is a collection of visual imagery that I connect with. Plus, I’m looking to take things a step further and incorporate photos of myself into my work. It will be an exhibitionist experiment. There will not be any indication when or where – it will be done in an anonymous way; my own Where’s Waldo game, I guess.
DK—I see similar themes between your work and the work of the late Hans Bellmer. Is he an inspiration to you?
JG—I would not consider him a direct influence, however, his dolls have always interested me. Germany has always intrigued me from an art standpoint. I was a huge fan of German Expressionism early on, and the Dada movement, with the collage work of Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, has been a big inspiration. I’ve had the great opportunity to show my work in Berlin several times over the last few years and the city and its people treat me very well. The last time I was there, the publisher Gestalten asked me to edit a contemporary collage book entitled Cutting Edges that has become a very popular title.
DK—From our short encounter in New York, you told me that you’re a family man. I’m trying to imagine what I would say to my dad if he had pictures of headless naked people around the house. Do your children take an interest in what you do?
JG—Hmm, I don’t know. I’m sure that some people think it’s crazy to expose my kids to my work. But, I can’t really hide it from them. Basically, as long as they realize that it’s just art, and that sex is a completely natural and healthy thing, and that the human body is beautiful in every way, shape, and size, and is not something to hide, they should be fine. My whole family is continually discussing and creating art. The kids and I have collage marathons on our dining room table. It’s a great way to get work done while hanging out with my kids. I have three children, ages 21, 15, and four.
DK—Is there anything exciting about to happen for you that The Lab’s readers might want to know?
JG—I am in some upcoming shows, one in Lima, Peru and another in Oslo, Norway. Both are international collage group exhibitions and most of the participating artists are recent friends and collaborators. In addition, I am working on several of my own curated shows. They will be a continuation of the Cutter series that I created several years back. This ever-evolving line-up of collage artists has been exhibited at galleries in Brooklyn, Berlin, and Cork, and now I am planning one in Rome (in collaboration with my Italian gallery, CO2) and then there may be a West Coast tour, which is still in early discussions.
DK—Last question, James. When this interview comes out, can you take these pages and make me a collage?
JG—Of course! But I will need several copies of the issue, if you don’t mind. One to cut apart, one for my bookshelf, and maybe another for my mom.