I couldn’t get hold of Gaetan James for an interview. Even ringing around for background information proved more difficult that I’d anticipated.

Kiss   fly %28princes gate mews%29

Kiss & Fly (Princes Gate Mews), by Gaetan James, 2016. Paper cut, edition of 20.

Nimki/James

I couldn’t get hold of Gaetan James for an interview. Even ringing around for background information proved more difficult that I’d anticipated. Gallerists were reticent when I asked how it had been to work with him; what he’d shown; it was as though I had stumbled across a conspiracy and no one would break the oath of silence. What little I did manage to get - a show in the cafe of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, an exhibition in Norfolk - was always supplemented by mention of another name which came up again and and again: ‘Do you know Jacques Nimki?’, ‘You’d have to speak to Jacques about that’, ‘I never met Gaetan, but Jacques Nimki came to hang the show.’ I happen to know Jacques well - he worked with us both at Great Russell Street and Thurloe Place, and so I asked him about the connection. He was as evasive as the curators had been, smiling as he said, ‘Gaetan and I go way back’. I pushed the point, and asked Jacques why we’d never met Gaetan ourselves - after all, we’d just taken down an exhibition of his most recent work. Jacques insisted that we must have done: ‘He was at the private view, remember? In fact, he came in a lot. But he’s quiet - he might not have introduced himself.’

Although James and Nimki have never been seen in the same room, they have a lot in common. From their choices of medium to the philosophies behind their work, the two artists seem to have been living almost parallel lives. After plenty of cajoling, Nimki permitted me access to an extract from their long-running correspondence which follows below; mutual admiration, shared history and the recent joint exhibition are discussed, and the two make plans to meet in the Congo – we’ll have to take their word for it.

Gatean James is a flaneur; for our Thurloe Place pop-up, he made a new series of limited edition paper cuts inspired by South Kensington, its residents and rhythms. An avid follower of James’ little-known oeuvre, Jacques Nimki created our headline commission, ‘Florilegium SW7’, accompanied by his own limited edition paper cut of flowers drawn from the flora of the meadow. Both are fascinated by the space between the quotidian and the extraordinary, pulling mundane subject matter into sharp relief by reframing it and, thereby, shifting its reception.

The thurloe affair

The Thurloe affair, by Gaetan James, 2016. Paper cut, edition of 20.

Jacques Nimki

Hi Gatean. Thanks for sending the chocolates - they really are something else. I think the first time I tasted them was when we first got together in Norfolk, and now I can’t disconnect the sensation from the location. And I know a sense of place plays a large role in your process. How does that work, for you?

Gaetan James

Yes, you’re right. ‘Place’ is vital, in that it provides the backdrop to the theatre that is taking place in the images, and I endeavour to make every image recognisable through its setting. My work is often exhibited in the place that inspired it, too – they’re deeply connected for me.

JN

And when you say ‘theatre’…?

GJ

I mean the everyday goings-on, of life, human beings.

Rotation   15.jpg   1474027634

Installation shot of 'The Kensington set' by Jacques Nimki, 2016.

JN

And how do those elements come together? Place, personhood?

GJ

Hmmm. I think the best way to explain is to think about the pieces in terms of their layers… Backgrounds are, say, a building or a street which betrays the location, the setting, and it’s important that this element is just as we would see it today. Some of the people who populate the tableaus are similarly quotidian, and then others are almost ‘copy-pasted’ from other media; models from fashion magazines, film stars from movies we’ve all seen. In a way, images of people like that make up as much of our everyday experience as the big issue seller or the teenagers kissing under the bridge we might pass on our walk to work.

JN

You know how much I like the images – I like their incongruity. Is that the reaction you’re aiming for?

GJ

Well! I think the off-key element you mention comes from the layering, from the inclusion of, say, the hyper-glamour of a French fashion shoot in a depiction of a Birmingham canal side. Those images are mediated, and when they’re removed from their original context, even when our ability to trace or understand their authorships is lost, there’s still a hint of recognition… as if we’re saying to ourselves, ‘I’ve seen that somewhere before’. I get that feeling when I look at a Cindy Sherman image. It’s the classic ‘uncanny’ problem – something familiar and unfamiliar at once feels strange but you’re not sure why. What’s different with my work, I think, is the double-bind of both, the uncanniness of each element - setting and casting, if you will. I expect people to recognise the backdrop as ‘normal’, contemporary – they’re hyper-specific, as you know, but hardly anyone will be able to say, ah! That’s Thurloe Place! Similarly, the film stars and so on are familiar, we’re so saturated with what they stand for even if we don’t recognise them specifically – they’re just out of context. That’s what I like to play with.

I think the off-key element you mention comes from the layering, from the inclusion of, say, the hyper-glamour of a French fashion shoot in a depiction of a Birmingham canal side.

Gaetan James
Dsc 0971

Jacques Nimki's Florilegium SW7, installation shot at 10a Thurloe Place.

JN

You are playful! I know you extend this idea, this problem of context, by shifting the everyday folk from one place to another. I’m thinking of an image, from the Ikon gallery series, where you placed a French lady shopping in France into a scene in Birmingham…

GJ

Yes, completely, and that’s the fun of it – that’s the challenge of creating an image that works. Of taking elements that we see everyday and would normally consider mundane, banal, and putting them together to create a reality that is extraordinary. And actually, when we pause and think about it, just being alive is quite extraordinary. I hope I’m reminding people that any snapshot, however humble the location, is worth taking – whether Brad Pitt’s in the foreground or not!

JN

You remind me of myself when I was younger – although, we’re exactly the same age, aren’t we? Perhaps you make me think of my own path, if it had gone in another direction, because my work with weeds is similarly concerned with things we don’t look at properly and reframing, ‘re-presenting’ them in a new context. It was great that we finally managed to show together in the same place, with Plinth in Thurloe Place this autumn - I think the two works sat really well together. Personally, I was especially struck by one paper cut of yours – ‘Victoria’s secret’. How did that one take shape?

GJ

Well, for Plinth I made a whole new series – ‘The Kensington set’. With ‘Victoria’s secret’, as with each of them, I spent time walking around the area and, in this case, was struck by the sheer majestic beauty of the Albert memorial. I loved the view from West Carriage Drive, which has this huge expanse of grass in the foreground covered in people just hanging out. On the particular day I was there looking to be inspired, I saw this group of women all in burqas walking past, and suddenly I could see the image that I wanted to create. So there’s a pair of eyes, framed by a niqab, in the foliage to the left of the paper cut. It’s quite funny – hardly anyone realises! A lot of people asked me whether it was a lamp, or a flying saucer, but when they saw her at last they were amazed that they hadn’t before, if you see what I mean. Again, it’s so interesting how changing the context of something foxes people. As for the title, I I’ll leave that to the viewer’s interpretation.

Victoria secret

Victoria's secret, by Gaetan James, 2016. Paper cut, edition of 20.

You remind me of myself when I was younger – although, we’re exactly the same age, aren’t we?

Jacques Nimki
JN

I was thinking through something similar with my meadow on the floor above, ‘Florilegium SW7’. I mean, we see grass all the time, but put it in a gallery or a shop window and people are just fascinated... And about ‘Victoria’s secret’, you’re right. It was hard to see, and I think having the papercuts hanging from pins rather than in frames made for that difficulty…

GJ

Yes, I agree. It did distort the images, but only in a good way I think. The hanging came after a discussion with the Plinth team and it was the first time I’d done it that way but I really liked what happened. It emphasised shadow – in fact, the grey of the shadow added a whole new tone to the black-and-white of the images – and made them kind of 3D, which in turn really helped to show that they were paper-cuts and not just prints.

JN

Yes, the paper-cut medium seems really crucial to your work. Sometimes, they remind me of woodcuts… What do you think? Does that bother you?

GJ

No, I think that’s great, the way that the style mimics different techniques – woodcut, lino cut, even screen-printing. It only adds to the ambiguity of the image.

Dsc 0936

Detail of The Thurloe affair by Gaetan James, edition of 20, 2016.

JN

And isn’t that a whole conversation in itself? So much more to say - we must do this in person, if we can. Where are you at the moment? And what’s 2017 looking like for you?

GJ

Yes, let’s try when I get back - I may well come bearing vodka and chocolates from Poland, because I’m currently in the lovely city of Gdansk, researching the graphic archives of Gunter Grass. Early 2017, I’ll be in Milton Keynes as it’s their 50th anniversary, making a new series of works for the city. Then the Lyn peninsular in Wales, followed by a long-awaited trip with Cyril – remember him? – to Brazzaville in the Congo to meet the ‘Sapeurs’, part of the extraordinary La Sape movement. I’m hoping their love of colour will inspire me to introduce some into my own work. Then I’m off to Nice, and finally home to Mauritius at the end of the year. In the middle of all this, I’m working on several private commissions which are proving very popular. I’m so glad, because I really like doing them – working closely with a client and allowing them to bring their own creative thoughts to the work. Always a good excuse for a chat.

JN

Hard to pin down, as ever! Perhaps I’ll try and meet you and Cyril in the Congo…

Hard to pin down, as ever!

Jacques Nimki
GJ

Do, I know he misses you. And it was such fun last time, wasn’t it?

JN

A pleasure to catch up, as always. I’ll send this over to Plinth.

GJ

Au revoir et bon chance, mon ami.