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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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James Whitley is riding the lowbrow movement

Spokane Valley artist James Whitley is surrounded in his studio by his “lowbrow” paintings filled with crazy imagery. He says his paintings have the “influence of underground comics.” (J. BART RAYNIAK)
Spokane Valley artist James Whitley is surrounded in his studio by his “lowbrow” paintings filled with crazy imagery. He says his paintings have the “influence of underground comics.” (J. BART RAYNIAK)
Jennifer Larue

Looking at James Whitley’s work, a viewer cannot help but wonder “whoa, where did that come from?”

It is obvious that the 35 year old’s mind is a deep abyss filled with strange and imaginative things. “I paint images of aliens, polluted landscapes, cosmic factories and the living dead, but ultimately I believe my art is relevant to our times,” he explained. “Let us not forget that art began with graffiti on cave walls. It was a way to communicate on what is going on in the collective conscious.”

Some might consider his work lowbrow or pop surrealism, terms used to label creative endeavors that stem from subcultures rooted in music, hot rods, comic books and street art. Considering that lowbrow is the opposite of highbrow which is synonymous with intellectual, one is left to wonder if lowbrow is thought of as the opposite of intellectual.

“I feel that illustration and representational art at some point lost a lot of its intellectual value in the modern art world, but thankfully it is working its way back into the minds of art lovers thanks to the lowbrow movement, which is ultimately the result of my generation’s interest in all things artistic aside from fine art,” Whitley said. “Fine art too often consists of work that is either totally abstract or quaint pictures of landscapes and traditionally accepted material. I believe that the representational image can be made into an abstraction that is foreign, yet in some ways familiar and can be more accessible if the viewer is willing to let go of our pretention and preconditioned ideas about art.”

Whitley’s work conveys exaggerated human emotions that represent things like alienation, fear, confusion, even love. They are figurative studies and faces, distorted with strange additions and unnatural appendages. In one piece, a guy chilling in the driver’s seat appears to be cruising through a war between good and evil and in another, a table in a coffee shop is reserved for “the people inside your head.” In the latter, a coffee drinker is peering over the edge of the table at a room full of otherworldly creatures.

Whitley has a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Western Washington University. One of his passions is writing and poetry but, after watching a documentary on artist Ray Johnson (“How to Draw a Bunny” 2002), he began focusing on visual arts, translating words into images. He works in mixed media, including collage, oil paint, ink, acrylic and spray paint.

He is only now beginning to seek out venues for his creations which are born in a studio attached to the garage at his Spokane Valley home. The room is covered with his work and filled with supplies. Even the doors are covered in paint and words.

Looking around and studying his work feels almost like being spoken to because the work speaks, almost screams at a viewer, demanding to be heard or at least recognized. As Whitley said, it appears foreign but somehow familiar, exposing emotions that are often suppressed or ignored.

“If I can induce emotion or a contemplative moment, while maintaining aesthetic value then I have succeeded,” he said. “I don’t want my images to be repulsive but I do want them to be thought-provoking and intellectually interesting, even if that means the viewer has to separate them self from their normal comfort zone.”

The Verve is a weekly feature celebrating the arts. If you know an artist, dancer, actor, musician, photographer, band or singer, contact correspondent Jennifer LaRue by e-mail
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