December Mostra 2017 / Meet the artists… James Epps

This is the fourth in our series of blog posts leading up to the December Mostra, our first exhibition of this academic year. As part of this series looking at the individual practices of our seven resident artists and resident architect, we interviewed James Epps, our 2017-18 Augusta Scholar. 


Photo: Antonio Palmieri

There is a use of ‘unconventional’ materials in your works/installations. Would you agree?

For me they are not unconventional. At present in the studio I am using coloured paper tablecloths to make these wall drawings. Paper tablecloths are a material that most people will have encountered in Rome, they are not uncommon as such, it’s just that the context is different when used to make a drawing. I wanted to use a material that I had encountered in Rome, rather than bringing a material from my studio back home, so they make sense as a material to work with for me.

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Studio shot (Photo: James Epps)

I wanted to use a material that was here in abundance, that was commonplace, not something that is particularly specialist. It’s along the same lines of Arte Povera, where they would use potentially any material, often something quite cheap and very accessible. So in Italy there is this idea of using commonplace materials that are not traditional fine art materials, but the most appropriate materials for the work being made.

A paper tablecloth isn’t permanent, on a table you can spill wine and then it gets thrown away and a new one is got out for the next person. I like this quality that they are not meant to last, they are meant to be thrown away. The work I have been making in the studio and will show for the mostra, is site-specific, it will only be there for the duration of the show, then it will disappear. In a sense I am using the tablecloth in a way that is similar to how it is used on the street, at a table.

When looking in different shops in Rome and deciding what material to use I was really struck by the colours of the tablecloths. They were very easy to choose as they stood out in the shop above all the other things. It was an instinctive choice to go for them, then I began to think about the material in different ways, the qualities that it holds.

They are very quick and easy to make things with. I have been cutting them and using wallpaper paste to put them onto the walls. When I put them up, I do it in quite a quick way so that you get the wrinkles, you can see where they have been cut and torn, so both the speed of making and the materiality is visible there in the work once it is on the wall.

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Studio shot (Photo: James Epps)

I will not take any of the work home after the mostra, except for a few samples as a record. For me it is quite important that it just exists for a certain amount of time and only in that space. I don’t want to try and prolong it, I am interested in the finite moment of the work.

Have you already thought about what you will present at the December Mostra? Will there be an installation that will be a reaction to the space itself?

I have been doing lots of different trials and experiments in the studio, and seeing how I could work with the material, what it does and what might be possible. Looking in the gallery space helped quite a lot, visualising a particular context.


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Studio shot (Photo: James Epps)

Working with dimensions of the architectural features, and using a particular feature of the gallery means that I can repeat a pattern that mirrors the space. Going into the gallery and looking at the space has been completely integral to what I am going to make, I very much had the idea only after seeing the space.

The exhibition will be the first time the work exists. A lot of my work exists beforehand as paper plans and tests, but it will never exist or come together fully until I install in the space. There is always an unknown element until I make the work in-situ.

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Studio shot (Photo: James Epps)

Artists like Sol LeWitt in the past have spent quite a bit of time in Italy. Are there any specific artists that you are currently looking into during your stay in Rome that have passed through Italy/have had experience in Italy?

I have been looking into LeWitt’s work in Italy, he had a house in Spoleto and a lot of fresco painters informed his work. However, I think the thing that you can really see in his work made in Italy, is the use of colour.

Other artists who have previously worked here have said that in Italy they really wanted the colour to come through in what they made. There is a sense of life and excitement in these colours, which are qualities that you encounter in Rome. Colour has always been integral in my work, so this hasn’t necessarily just come from being in Rome, but it definitely feels pertinent to being here.

Before I came to the BSR I had been very conscious of Robert Rauschenberg’s time spent working around Italy and the Mediterranean, even though it was just for a relatively short period in his career. Seeing some of the iconic works he made, especially the photographs taken in the Capitoline Museums of the head of Constantine and his photos in Venice, you get the idea of his excitement of exploring Italy coming through the different images.

Robert Rauschenberg also made the Feticci Personali, which he installed in the Pincio Gardens, just across the park from the BSR. Being conscious of that work, which he made in such proximity to where we are based is difficult to ignore. He installed this work in the gardens, which was only ever going to be there for a brief moment. There is a spontaneity which feels very relevant to the way I make my work, going somewhere new and letting the environment inform what I make and, for me, really soaking up the city.

Have you visited many different sites while you have been resident here at the BSR? Are there any that have particularly inspired you?

Visiting the Etruscan Necropolis at Tarquinia was probably the most memorable visit that I’ve had so far, seeing the incredible painted Etruscan tombs. Some are figurative and some have mythological scenes, but they also use a lot of geometric patterns and colour banding. These paintings, despite being 2,500 years old, look very fresh and there was such a sense of life to them. The way that they were made also looks very quick and very free and those kinds of qualities definitely struck me. All the tombs are underground, down a dark staircase, and you have to press a little light to illuminate them, making it quite a theatrical experience. This visit has stuck with me, both because it was an experience that was quite alien to me and also the quality of the paintings they made.

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Etruscan Necropolis at Tarquinia, Tomb of the Leopards (Photo: James Epps)

You mention you are interested in patterns, have you looked at any of the mosaics in Rome?

In my project proposal I said that I would look at the mosaics at the Baths of Caracalla and also at Segni. Unfortunately it’s not possible to see the mosaics at Segni, but after discussing these mosaics with BSR Archaeology Officer, Stephen Kay, he told me of a similar interesting mosaic at the Villa of the Papyri, at Herculaneum. I was able to get a permit to visit this site thanks to Permissions Officer, Stefania Peterlini. It was incredible to see this mosaic preserved in such amazing condition and to see the original colours. The experience of having a guide to take me in on my own was incredible as I was able to encounter this mosaic still in the villa context without ropes and other people. 

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Tesserae mosaic in the Villa dei Papiri (Photo: James Epps)

Seeing mosaics in their original context was something I was very keen to do here in Italy, as opposed to seeing them in museums, where they are up on a wall, like a painting, rather than on the floor where they were intended to be encountered.

Seeing all the fantastic mosaics in churches, like the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, where every surface is covered with something, was incredible, opus sectile mosaics alongside Byzantine mosaics. It was really incredible seeing that intensity of artworks and decoration in one space.

How have you found working in the BSR community?

Going around Rome with different artists has been really good, seeing how other artists look at the city, as well as going with them to places that I might not otherwise think to visit myself.

My most fun trip to a church, probably in my whole life, was with Patrick O’Keeffe (Giles Worsley Rome Fellow) to San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, where I was part of an experiment he was conducting for his research, trying on eye-tracking goggles which track the specific route a person’s eyes follow within a space. There are some similarities between my work and what he is doing, how the eye engages with architecture and artworks, so it was a really interesting insight into how he approaches these questions from the perspective of an architect.

Being at the BSR feels like sitting down with twenty of the best tour guides in Rome for breakfast! To get a sense of the other award-holders’ and staff members’ enthusiasm for different places in Rome and their knowledge is very special.


James’ work will be exhibited alongside the seven other resident artists in the December Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 December 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 December 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events)