Dalek Transistorizes

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James Marshall, aka Dalek
James Marshall, aka Dalek Credit: Michael Wong
Chances are you've never seen a little gray primate with bulging eyes, skinny legs and an affinity for mallets and machetes on the Discovery Channel. Unless there's a drop of peyote involved in your next forest stroll, you won't find one anywhere outside the sharply surreal artwork of James Marshall, also known by his Dr. Who-inspired graffiti moniker, Dalek. Between the paintings, city walls, animated shorts, toy designs and other assorted incarnations (shower curtains!), Marshall's Space Monkey has become synonymous with Dalek. Over the last year, however, Marshall has made some changes that will alter the way his work is viewed.

He recently added another element to his commercial art experience, signing with New York animation/digital design house Transistor Studios as a design director. It may seem a curious choice for an artist known primarily for his sharp-lined painting, but for Marshall it was a natural choice. He's known Transistor co-founder Damon Meena for more than a decade, since the two attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and considering he's been approached by various interests, including Nickelodeon, about adapting his work for animation, Marshall figured it was the right time to move to more sophisticated artistic ground. After toys and product design, which supplied him with the background to take on animation and interactive work, "this is kind of the final frontier," he says. Joining Transistor is "a good marriage because I'm not going into these projects cold. My other animation has been very much a one-angle thing, which has its charm but is still very art school project-looking." With the support of Transistor, "we can enhance what I already have." Meena agrees and says that Marshall's art translates well to animation. "We've always wanted to work together, and now, from a professional standpoint, it's perfect timing for him to lead a team with his art and design sensibility."

But earlier this year, Marshall stepped away from the deluge of commercial project requests he was fielding and instead focused exclusively on his painting—a career that began when he was inspired by the graffiti he photographed as an art school student, which led to the first Space Monkey, born on a Connecticut wall around 1995. After graduation and a stint as the skateboarding team manager for Duffs shoes, he was an assistant in Takashi Murakami's New York studio, which helped him establish his own working regimen, he says. His commercial art portfolio includes projects with Nike, Scion, Kidrobot and more. "It's not that I wanted to move away from commercial projects completely; it's just that given where things were at with the painting, I
didn't really have the focus to do all these different things at once," Marshall explains. "It was making the painting suffer, and the painting has to come first. It's the foundation of the entire thing and what I enjoy the most."

With more time dedicated to painting, he quickly expanded his palette and began to experiment with new elements and more complicated patterns. This led him to another major change, one that some might find surprising—stepping away from the Space Monkey. Having a beloved, recognizable character is both a blessing and a curse—it provides a ready audience, but will that same audience embrace work that doesn't include it? "It becomes a crutch, what people want to see," says Marshall. "That's all I got when people asked me to design something—'Can we get a monkey for this?' There are only so many fucking Space Monkeys you can put out into the world before people burn out on it. So I just wanted to see where I could go past that, and it really started to work. Some of the breakthroughs I've made with my painting can be applied to toy and product design and animation, and I can start creating a wider foundation."

Marshall's last two shows, at New York's Jonathan Levine Gallery in April, and at L.A.'s Merry Karnowsky Gallery last month, were the first exhibitions to downplay or, in the case of the Karnowsky show, completely eliminate the Space Monkey. And for the Karnowsky show at least, he dropped Dalek and assumed his given name. The moniker and the monkey aren't gone forever but the latest development of Marshall's work now gives him the choice of where and when to use certain styles. He's been pleasantly surprised by the recent positive feedback, considering how much praise the monkey has garnered over the years. "I've never concentrated too much on my stylistic approach outside of that character, so it's nice that people are drawing the connections," he says.

Jonathan Levine believes the combination of taking more time to develop his paintings
and the scaling back of the Space Monkey has helped Marshall to leap forward. "The work has become, in a lot of ways, more complex and I think people have responded better than ever," he says, adding his gallery sold all but one piece. "I think he just took it to another level, dealing a bit more with composition and doing more with the different shapes in his work."

"Sometimes you just have to go with your gut," Marshall concludes. "It's not always the most popular thing, but you've got to do what makes sense to you, and hopefully people will get it and appreciate it."

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