The Boston Phoenix Newspaper
BY CAMILLE DODERO
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in Fort Point Channel’s Studio Soto, a first-floor gallery on Melcher Street overlooking the lifeless A Street Diner. Studio Soto isn’t usually open on weekdays, but the MassArt-educated painter/illustrator has keys to the space and opened it for a guided tour of his show, “Spencer James: New Work & Slop Pop.” In one corner of the space is a red-and-orange piece that stars the Count from Sesame Street. “I like the Count’s ‘Ha-ha-ha,’” James explains with a grin, Sonic Youth blaring in the background. “My grandfather is from Croatia and he had that Eastern European accent.” On another wall, there’s a painting of the cursive phrase “the name of your band.” “It’s so important to bands,” the 39-year-old says. “Now that I’m out of the potential age range to be a pop star, it’s just kind of funny that the name of your band holds so much weight.”
But names hold a certain importance for James, too. He christened his three-man pop-punk band after a sign in a Mission Hill tire shop: FLATS FIXED. And the term “slop pop” is integral to the identity of James’s work. It’s not his genre tag, per se: scrappy music writers have tossed the label around, a New York band called Poolsville released an EP by that name in 1998, and James himself has heard Melt-Banana called “slop pop.” But a few years ago, when it came time to assign a moniker to Flats Fixed’s self-releases, he parodied Sub Pop and called it Slop Pop Records. The adjective conveys not only James’s approach to music, but his messy, somewhat haphazard, color-that-casually-bleeds-outside-the-lines approach to painting. James admits, “Mistakes are actually the most important part [of my work].”
That’s especially evident looking around the Fort Point gallery. Many of James’s drawings are of figures: elephants, lotus flowers, a yam shaped like a uterus. And for the most part, they look like enlarged notebook doodles. Being bored and scrawling on paper is actually what inspired a few of them. Like the Buddha series — portraits of the back of Buddha’s head. “I was an A/V technician,” says James, referring to the full-time hospitality-style job he held at the MIT Hotel he recently left after five years. “I found myself drawing the backs of people’s heads a lot.”
Although the Croatian-born Jamaica Plain resident has an art-school background and even worked at his parents’ folk-art shop during high school, he says he doesn’t really know much about art. For example, he has no idea how to mix color. “I know just enough to be dangerous,” he likes to say, adding that he’s red-green colorblind. So when James started at MassArt, he first found himself drawn to the visual and tactile qualities of found objects, like old, rained-on plywood. When he started painting on the plywood, the process didn’t allow him room for tidying up error — and inevitably “happy mistakes” became the art.
That’s also consistent with James’s handmade line of Slop Pop trucker hats and T-shirts. The hats have logos that are hand-stamped and off-kilter. James created the items because he “wanted something fast” and because he’s lately been inspired by bike couriers. He worked as one during college. “Couriers are this weird unsung hero,” he says. “…their piercings, nose rings, and tattoos — smelling like cigarettes — are like an integral part of perfect hair, manicure, perfect suits, and lawyers and business. They’re always in trouble with the law, cabbies hate them, yet they have a right to be on the road….”