San Quentin death row inmate James Anderson is the quintessential outsider artist. Imprisoned since 1979, Anderson creates abstract acrylic paintings that draw the viewer into the perspective of the imprisoned. Stylistically, his work can be described as synthetic cubism. He creates his work in series, which include “The Axe Series,” and “The Afstract Series.”
His works are heavily influenced by cubism, a movement which itself was strongly influenced by African art. His collection entitled “The Afstract Series” goes full circle, reintegrating the African symbolism cubism was based on into the art form. Anderson is entirely self-taught, and the influence of Pablo Picasso is very evident in his work, especially in “The Axe Series,” which showcases a variety of musical instruments
“As to how my incarceration impacts my paintings,” said Anderson. ” I think that my efforts to draw the viewers into my work are intensified, and as there is much that I am not in a position to actually do, I try to inspire the viewers to think a little deeper than they usually would, as there is much more to reality than most people would normally think or believe.”
Many of his works use the cubist form to create an illusion that the viewer is looking at the world from the inside of a prison cell. The cells are variously brick-lined, or walled in by black and white checkerboards, and the cells very frequently have doors or windows. In “The Axe Series,” the shapes of musical instruments frequently become doors or windows into cityscapes and night skies forever out of reach to the encased viewer.
“The viewer will also sometimes notice the silhouette of a person standing somewhere inside of a room or walking down the middle of a highway,” said Anderson, “but wherever this person may be, the viewer is somehow able to visualize him or herself as being that person, and wondering ‘where am I,’ ‘why am I here?’ or “which way should I go?’ and needless to say, these images apply to real life and its circumstances.”
His works currently hang in the offices of Covert Action Quarterly Magazine in Washington DC, KPOO Radio and Lynne Rutter Studio in San Francisco, and the Law Offices of Michele Simon in Oakland. Several bloggers have written about his legal case.