Holmes. Silas. Amos. London based artist and illustrator James Jarvis certainly doesn’t need an introduction on these pages, since we’ve already featured his work quite prominently throughout the history of this magazine. Nevertheless, it was about time to catch up with him again, as he was basically introducing a new chapter in his (illustrative) life to his steadily increasing followers over the last two years: clean outlines and vectorized potato heads made room for rather raw drawings, and references about music, fashion, and skateboarding had to give way for examinations of philosophy. But as we all know: change alone is eternal, perpetual, immortal.
Lodown hooked up with Mr. Jarvis while he was walking the streets of Berlin during the Pictoplasma festival in early May of 2014 in order to talk about life after Amos, philosophy, and invading social media platforms.
I've noticed that you’ve been embracing social media platforms quite a bit lately...
Well, what I do is draw, right? And this feels like just the right thing to get it out to the people who like me and maybe even start a conversation about it at best. By now, it feels like just another way of publishing. Something like an ongoing book.
And you get an immediate reaction, whether you like it or not.
But that’s exactly what I like about it. So many things are just commodities these days: you buy a tee or a record or a toy. And what I like about Instagram for example is that you’re obviously consuming something, but it is not a commodity. Obviously there is this frustration that people tend to like things rather casually. But for me it’s more like delivering a drawing to thousands of people... (laughs) I’m actually really competitive in terms of the number of followers - I still have two thousand less followers than Geoff McFetridge and it’s even worse when I compare my numbers to Brian Donelly’s (Kaws). I don’t know, it’s partially an ego-thing, and partially wanting people to see what I’m doing. You know what’s really frustrating: sometimes I publish a graphic which is all clean, all vectors... and it gets three times as many likes as a really clever, intellectual black and white drawing I did.
Why is that particularly frustrating? It’s simply the way many people got in touch with your drawings and characters...
Right, but you're having this dialogue with people and they know what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about these days.... which actually opened a whole new audience for me that reaches beyond toys or what I did for Silas or all that other shit I did in the past.
What do you mean by that?
For example: Eric Koston, he does that weird one-footed nosegrind down a handrail... it’s this kind of joke trick he landed once. I drew a cover version, so to speak, where one of my characters is doing this trick... and some people found out about it and tagged it #erickoston. Obviously he got wind of it and liked it, which then has a positive effect on your numbers. Seriously, I remember that one day when Brian/Kaws liked something I did and I got around 3K new followers because of it. So what I noticed is: I had this great and loyal audience through making toys... but I never got the respect from my peers, because these people are normally a lot more interested in the drawing itself. And I’m really happy that they’re the ones who comment on the more intellectual and twisted stuff I’m doing now.
(laughs) I don’t know why having these kind of dialogues is so important to me at the moment. For example: I did a couple of abstract drawings that were inspired by Supreme’s “Cherry“ video, which I really loved... and I was really happy that Sean Pablo responded to it. I was also really happy that Chad Muska responded to a particular drawing one day.
To be honest with you, I’m slightly confused that you keep track of these kinds of things... I would’ve guessed that it’s really not that important to you after all these years.
Maybe it’s because of all the youth culture-related things I was interested in, skateboarding still remains an important factor in my life. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily refer to skateboarding as a youth culture thing in the first place, because for me it’s a way you look at the world regardless of your age. It’s like a philosophy almost. And that’s why I love it... it goes beyond the latest trick or how tight people's trousers are.
But I don't automatically take an interest when people follow me on these platforms. Having said that: when I was doing these daily comic strips on philosophy in 2012 - they were compiled in the Nieves book that got published last year - and they were all about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Plato and all these guys. It was basically me trying to understand philosophy. I published them on my blog and spread the word through Twitter... and I noticed that somebody was re-tweeting these things. I looked this guy up and it turned out that he was a professor of philosophy... and I was really excited about that because he obviously wasn’t related to graphic or skate culture. I don’t know how he found out about these drawings, but more philosophers noticed them. It got to the point where I felt as though a teacher was lauding me because I understood something correctly. (laughs) And I was kinda frustrated when I wasn’t re-tweeted by him, because I felt like that drawing then didn’t make sense really.
What drew you towards philosophy and this project in the first place?
At the time I was still doing Amos with Russell (Waterman), and I wanted to do a project that was my personal project, something that wasn’t connected to making toys or doing t-shirts but more substantial and intellectual. And I knew that I wanted to contribute to this project on a daily basis... you know, a kind of discipline thing because it’s good for me to work every day. Some days I had so many ideas that I did three cartoons, so in the end I had around 380 drawings in total, which I then reduced to 365. Seriously, to me, that’s the best thing I’ve ever done... it’s the thing I’m most proud of. Some of the drawings are quite difficult because you need to understand at least a little bit about philosophy to understand the reference or joke. But sometimes it’s really shallow as well... for example, I read something by Nietzsche - and I think he’s quite undervalued for being actually pretty funny. Obviously, there’s this Übermensch thing and people think he’s a fascist, but a lot of his books are actually really well-written, they’re really readable. I might be wrong about the funny undertones though. Schopenhauer is a really beautiful writer. Very clear. French philosophers are often really hard to understand because of the language they’re using... you almost need to have studied philosophy before you’re reading them. But: the philosophers I’m referring to are really old-school.... it’s a bit like being a skater and still trying to be like the Bones Brigade in the early 80s when things have actually moved on a bit. The modern ideas of philosophy are actually quite different... it certainly has evolved. And I find them much harder to understand because their ideas center around a dialogue with the past instead of delivering something radically new. But I still know so little about it... and that’s why I’m still stuck with the old and rather classic philosophers. Plus, guys like Noam Chomsky for example always make me feel guilty that I live my life wrong, to be honest.
I also did this book about architecture - it's actually really nice, after having done work for 20 years that’s connected to skateboarding and fashion - to get asked to do a book about a topic like this. It’s nice that things then become challenging again.
But you were always tackling these topics right from the start as well... it maybe just wasn’t as elaborately executed.
Yeah, I think back then it was more about showing that I’m also interested in things like Bauhaus and Modernism, and so I kinda referenced it. A comic about a policeman had buildings in the background that looked like Walter Gropius’ estates. But that was clearly just a reference and not necessarily about the ideas behind these buildings.
And you also (almost) did a daily cartoon some years ago to introduce the universe of Caleb - The Wisdom of Caleb - to the Amos community.
Russell wrote that, so it was a different kind of collaboration. But doing this particular comic was a very essential transition for me, especially style-wise, because I always wanted to draw things more raw. Quicker. And that series was a really good experiment in terms of doing something everyday.
And it was also quite philosophical... and all for the sake of promoting a new toy.
Right. I mean, the reason why the toys were so successful is because they were simple objects to understand... you looked at them and either you liked them or you didn’t. With a book or a comic, you need to engage yourself. And that’s why I wanted to do a comic about philosophy, because it forces you to question certain things instead of just staring at it.
What made you decide to stop Amos in the first place? Was it a long time coming or a rather spontaneous thing to do?
At the beginning of our last year, we just realized that we don’t want to do any more toys... it would have felt like doing it just for the sake of it. And for us, it was always about having a good idea and then finding the right way to execute it. Even if we would have reduced it down to t-shirts and graphics, a lot of things then needed to be changed... and Amos never was this super-calculated money business model. Within ten years we did all these amazing things: the toys, the comic books, the crazy golf hole we did with you guys from Brand New History, a music festival, a daily comic strip... we did a lot of interesting things with it, and so we decided to stop it, so it can become a really nice legacy. Better stop when it still feels good.
And obviously you’d hopefully benefit from a fine reputation like this for future projects...
Sure, but the weird thing is that things are still split into many different subcultures these days, right? If you’re officially doing Fine Arts, you’re not allowed to do t-shirts... unless you’re being ironic. I find that pretty hard to accept, to be honest. The Peanuts characters Brian/Kaws recently did - and don’t get me wrong, I really like them - are more valid than the original characters I draw. It is a divided culture these days, I’d say.
But that’s the thing, right? As soon as an artist gets celebrated for a certain image and he then rides on this formula, things start to get complicated.
It’s all a matter of if you really want to sell you art... and what are the reasons for why you want to sell it. If people are buying your painting or drawing as a commodity, because it reflects a certain value, or if they’re buying it because they really really like it. To make serious money from your art you have to see it as a commodity.... as a decoration for people who are willing to pay whatever price for it. I get the sense that when you’ve reached that level as an artist things aren’t necessarily getting easier, because you’re only allowed to progress to a certain degree... because people eventually prefer a Spongebob reference over a Goya reference. And then elements such as ego and community are appearing as well.
So would you say that people give you a hard time now because you changed from clear outlines and vectorized potato heads to something more organic and raw and free?
Some people certainly would like me to do the thing that they liked the most again and again... no one is giving me a hard time so far, but I get a sense of it. In the end, you have to do what you believe in, right? And I still like the clearly outlined characters, I did some things for Lacoste last year that totally hit that aesthetic nerve. But I don’t necessarily need these characters anymore. It should be possible to say the things that you wanna share with a rough drawing as well. These days I like to express ideas just in b/w on a piece of paper... this obviously might change again in the future though. But just to draw the very same idea on a canvas instead of paper, doesn’t make the idea any better. It doesn’t have more meaning because of that, even though you shouldn’t underestimate the power a painting could have. But I don’t like the idea that a drawing is seen as a first step to something else... to something bigger and therefore more meaningful. For me a drawing is the most pure and poetic thing. I like the idea of Adolf Loos, who was a very early modernist, that said that anything extra, anything with a decorative function, is dishonest and wrong. I don’t need to add any kind of cross-hatching... they don’t tell you anything else about the drawing, they just fill the space, right?!