Bold colours, simple shapes and minimal details go into making James Ulmer’s uncomplicated paintings, which look vaguely like colourful Egyptian hieroglyphics mixed with a touch of Matisse. “I like not having too much information in there,” he tells Elephant. “They are flat, and there is play between the negative and positive spaces.” From a distance Ulmer’s works look as though they might be printed, but up close you can see the texture of his careful but purposeful brushstrokes.
Inspired by children’s art, comic books, toys and everyday materials, these references go back to when Ulmer first became interested in art at around age five or six years old. “We would draw as a family. An early memory was going to my grandparents house, my grandmother, sister and I would draw pictures. My sister Rachel would write short stories and poetry, and I liked to draw and copy from comic books,” explains Ulmer. “My sister was very creative growing up and that encouraged me to want to make art too.”
Based in New York, Ulmer works in a studio in a warehouse building which he shares with a few other painter friends. Around the studio are paintings he is currently working on, finished paintings hang on the walls, as well as reams of reference materials like old magazines, art books and comics.
“I like not having too much information. They are flat, and there is play between the negative and positive spaces“
Despite their simplicity, Ulmer takes time to consider his artworks before committing them to canvas. “I make a lot of preliminary sketches on paper, silhouettes of what will become a finished piece,” he says. “I can go back to these and reuse the same image over and over again; it’s my way of collecting images.” He then uses a projector to scale up drawings and give him a base to work from. The artist uses Flashe paints, a sort of matte acrylic that is known for their intense, bright pigments, which work perfectly in Ulmer’s cut out-like works.
The naivety and simplicity in Ulmer’s work is enhanced by the charm of his characters, which are often captured in a side profile with intriguing blank expressions. “I like the way a simple drawing or painting looks—it’s more direct and universal, in a way,” says Ulmer. “I think of them as abstract paintings, more open to interpretation.”
Ultimately, what Ulmer hopes to create is a simple visual language, in which his figures, animals and ambiguous shapes become symbols that can be decoded, just like cave paintings or even modern street signs.