Artistic evolution: James Angel

By Jenna Duncan, October 2019 Issue.

The digital revolution has not only completely rewired the platforms of human communication as we know it, it also has created an evolution in forms of self-expression, as well. Immersive art experiences have replaced static, passive, experienced based on observing art objects.

In sum, art and artists have evolved, and continue to evolve.

Enter James Angel, a talented multimedia/multidisciplinary professional artist who has been active locally for more than two decades.

“Everything is 20 years,” he says. “I’ve been married to my husband for 20 years. We started Chaos Theory 20 years ago.” Before a recent move and brief stint in Austin, Texas, to work full-time at Fine Art Publishing, Angel and his partner lived in his Scottsdale home near SMoCA also for 20 years.

James Angel in the studio.

“I’ve been at it a while,” he says. “My first professional jobs were at Sunbelt Scenic Studio and Southwest Scenic Group in Tempe. [Southwest Scenic Group] was my first real art job. I was in the paint job and I was in the graphics department.”

To get to where he is now, still painting and creating series of limited edition giclee prints but also creating mesmerizing digital animated video art and installation work, James Angel traveled through a cosmic chronology of life events, art experiments, and self-training.

Throughout his career, Angel has worked in mainly three distinct arenas: fine art, fine art for interior design (Crate & Barrel, West Elm, Z Gallerie among others), and original, site-specific comissions for more corporate settings, including hotels.

The work he did for his scenic studios in the 1990s was work mostly for trade events, he says. His company would build the set or do staging for trade events, concerts, theatrical performances and more. He produced three-dimensional objects like styrofoam cacti, 100-foot screens, even a Santa’s Workshop. “We had these 50-gallon drums of glitter and spray glue, and we’d glue glitter to the ceiling. We’d do a whole village,” he says.

Waxing Moon.

One year his company built props and the set for World on Ice’s production of Hansel & Gretel. He remembers building things like a giant gingerbread man and a cage for the witch when they finally caught her.

“Imagine having a scrim on the ground and you’re painting it with a giant paintbrush on the end of a stick,” he says with eyes lighting up. He enjoyed the work because they would have to creatively imagine anything that came up — it was always something new.

From the corporate sets and staging jobs, Angel moved on to Phoenix Art Group, where he began to work in an open studio among many other painters, producing high demand fine art.

“It was so cool because it was a studio art house.” Any given day he’d be surrounded by 18 different artists, and he could see what all the other artists were doing. That was back in the year 2000.

Mixed media on canvas.

It impacted his art practice in myriad ways, he says, because it provided a space to be extremely creative and to be influenced by and collaborate with other creative people. “To this day, I am hard to pin down because my work is so varied as it is. And it’s probably a result of that,” he says.

James Angel found at Phoenix Art Group different ways of approaching things. Around that same time, he also became connected to the Fine Art Publishing firm. He began to produce work in many different veins, from his own, personally expressive fine art to also more commercial, on-demand art, often made under a pseudonym. He learned the trade of how to read the market, forecast trends and produce works that met those demands. “For the longest time none of us talked about this stuff,” he says. “I know artists who wouldn’t appreciate me telling you their [pseudonyms].”

“After we left Phoenix Art Group — we all left together, Randy Slack, and [David] Dauncey — we started Three-Car Pile-Up.” Right around that time, he also met the publishers at Fine Art Publishing group and began to produce limited edition prints for them, as well. “That’s mostly what you learn at Phoenix Art Group,” he says. “You learn how to interpret the interior market and how to read trends, and just know innately what’s current, right now.”

As many art career stories go, Angel was growing and changing his practice all the time. He began to teach himself Photoshop when early versions of the software debuted (he recalls Photoshop 3.0 back in the 1990s). He had a goal, he says: Angel wished to be as skilled working in the digital program as he was working on Canvas.

When he began to work in the more site-specific, location-based arenas, he felt he was still riding in the same lanes as the interior design art but scaled up. Designing the interior look of spaces follows a lot of the same parameters, he says. The artist must embrace the idea of a brand presence. “Some firms have a whole design team that formulates their colors, their brand, and the design needs may change as the project goes on.

“It’s really rewarding at the end if you see it and go, ‘That’s my lobby!’” he says.

His installation/interior design work includes spaces in the Phoenix Country Club, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, hotels in and around the state, and different corporate offices.

Some projects don’t even exist anymore. One of Angel’s favorite projects to work on, the Pink Pony remodel, only lasted about six months to a year. He recalls the landmark fondly and says he was especially proud that you could look into the building’s windows and see his work from the street.

But after the market crashed, he started to do more site-specific work to supplement his income.

“When I say installation, I’m talking mostly about artwork for the walls. There’s a company called The Art Makery. I met the founder because she used to come to Modified for Art Detour, and I showed there seven years in a row,” he says.

Angel began to work with Jude Smith, an art consultant. She has also worked with other local fine artists such as Christine Cassano and Gloria Gaddis. She only works with original fine art. “So, she’ll go in. She will meet with the designers, the architect, the owner, all the major decision-makers, and she’ll find out what their objective is. And then she will curate a collection.

He just got a call that a major hotel in D.C. is looking for some work. “We are going to try something that sort of references the train station.” Union Station, D.C., rivals Grand Central in New York City, he says.

James met his husband, Johnny Angel, 20 years ago. About a year-and-a-half ago, he got an offer to work for Fine Art Publishing full time, so he uprooted his family, including his elderly mother, and moved out to Austin.

But the move didn’t turn out to be a permanent change. Within that time, Angel lost not only his mother, but a best friend in New York City and his beloved dog. Shortly after that series of losses, he lost his job. James and Johnny decided to return to Scottsdale. But it was a tough move. They loved the house they gave up in Arizona, and Austin really started to grow on Johnny, James says.

“But Austin was not an art city; not compared to here,” he says. “Their first Friday is like five or six galleries and three of them are in strip malls.” So, for that reason, James Angel was glad to return to the Valley where he can be active and has been embraced by the art community.

“It’s just that the concentration is greater here. Just by population,” he says. “As a whole. I don’t want to slam Austin.”

As his art practice continues to grow and evolve, more recently Angel has taught himself how to design and create new works using 3-dimensional rendering software. His drug of choice is a freeware program called Blender 3-D and he’s been training himself through YouTube, he says. Repeating his goal of being “as good at demonstrating on canvas as demonstrating in Photoshop,” he now hopes to become as good at Blender 3-D as he is in Photoshop — pretty much an expert-level user.

Angel credits his naturally curious nature with the development of his software and digital video art skills. “What happened was I pressed the 3-D button — and it changed my world!”

Every time he figures out a new trick or meets a new personal milestone working in Blender 3-D, he posts the results to Instagram.

He becomes very animated when he describes working in the program, which professional designers use to model everything from car parts to dental implants. “It is like all of human learning in one program.”

His new products are more like short films; it’s not exactly right to call them “video art,” but it’s not exactly wrong, either.

Angel says he might conceive some way to use these new skills for branding and marketing work. Currently, he’s mainly using them for creative expression.

“That’s what so great about it, too. A lot of these big cinema houses use Cinema 4D or these big rendering issues. And for a longtime Blender was the underdog. But because it’s freeware and because there is such a big knowledge base … it’s really gaining in popularity.”

New works by James Angel will be on view at Chaos Theory 2019, opening Oct. 4 at Legend City Studios, 521 W. Van Buren St., in Phoenix. Angel will also be featured in a show at The Newton, in Phoenix, through October.