GREATEST: James Bantone

Examining the subversive aspects of James Bantone’s “uncomfortable art” in celebration of his installation at MANIFESTO 2023.

Writer: Felix Petty Photographer: Fritz Schiffers Artwork: Courtesy of James Bantone

What makes an image fashionable? Where do we draw the line between attraction and disgust? How does a magazine image reflect the power structures of society and determine who is in, out or worthy? Mixed-media artist James Bantone uses photography, sculpture, video and painting to explore these questions and study image as a source of power. His creations juxtapose the beautiful and the ugly, distorting mouths, faces and bodies to turn his subjects into something uncanny.

At MANIFESTO, a three-day festival presented by Kaleidoscope and GOAT at Espace Niemeyer during Paris Fashion Week SS24, the Swiss artist showcases his Fool of the Month series, exploring the forced act of smiling and the accompanying politics. Below, Bantone opens up about his time as a European transplant in New York, the joys of abstract painting and reframing reality TV as an act of artistic expression.

James Bantone uses photography, sculpture, video and painting to explore images as sources of power. He is seen here wearing I S E custom-made leather boots by frequent collaborator Jazil Santschi.   

Let’s start at the beginning. What were some of your early influences and how did you develop your work?

I began with photography, mainly documentary photography. I was always sensitive to the social aspect of the medium and the connection it fostered between people. I was also interested in how people form a community and operate within certain systems. That’s something that I was very aware of—always. After a while, I started to become less interested in the people, instead focusing on how they look. Very shallow! [Laughs] 

But fashion is a way of documenting people, too.

I don't want to say I was simply attracted by the looks. I was attracted to how people and specific groups carry themselves in a space. I loved discovering communities who had their own worlds, who could tell stories through clothing, what they wore, how they wore it. I find it beautiful.

What kind of communities are you referring to specifically?

As a mixed-race homosexual growing up in Switzerland, I was always trying to find people who looked like me and experienced the same things I did. Growing up, people weren’t as open as they were today. Switzerland has really changed. Younger people are much more confident in their bodies and how they look. I love that. But for me it was difficult. It wasn’t until I went to New York when I was 17 that I found a broader queer community of color. This didn’t exist for me in Switzerland. Finding it totally changed my perspective.

On art, too? 

I came to the arts quite late. I studied photography in high school. I was quite lazy; I thought it would be easy but it wasn’t. I enjoyed it though and my photography teacher really believed in me. In the end, I studied international relations, only to realize after one semester that it wasn’t for me, so I quit and went to art school in Geneva. Before I started, they said, “If you come to study here, are you ready to live as an artist?" This freaked me out so much. I ended up quitting this course, too. Then I applied to go to school in Zurich, where I studied Fine Arts Video.

The Swiss artist showcases his 'Fool of the Month' series, exploring the forced act of smiling and the accompanying politics at MANIFESTO.   

You can see these different elements at play in your work. I hadn’t considered it before, but there’s also this relationship between fashion and documentary: what people look like, what they wear and what wider society considers beautiful, cool and worthwhile to put in a magazine.

The context in which the image is created is incredibly important. Clothing can tell a story, and people can have a specific perception about fashion. I like this idea of, “What makes a fashion image a fashion image?” As an artist, I can work within the aesthetics of fashion without being considered part of the fashion industry.

A big inspiration to me is the collective DIS, particularly David Toro and Solomon Chase, who now work together as Torso. I like their relationship between art, fashion and visual communications. They had this formal knowledge of the form which they then bring into an art context.

What’s your relationship to photography, both editorial and commercial?

It began as a tool. It was the first way I was able to express myself in a creative manner. It was a gateway. In my very early work I worked a lot with reality TV. I staged a reenactment of the TV show Love & Hip Hop. The idea was to take the format and restage it in the most minimal way possible—in a photo studio—with focus on the body in the space and the interaction. This was a reflection on the medium itself and how it plays with the perception—or the representations—of certain bodies.

How did working with sculpture fit into that? 

Sculpture evolved from my work within fashion photography. I had this archive of poses and images of how models would react to each other. At some point, instead of recreating the image or just recreating the bodies themselves, it became more interesting to capture with sculpture. It’s almost like a series of photos within the sculptural works, like you’re witnessing a shoot happening.

Sculpture comes back to the feeling that permeated my early works: the sense of not belonging. I started with reality TV and began attempting more “classical” ways of creating. If you are a sculptor or a painter, you’re a “real” artist. I’ve also started painting, arguably the most loaded medium there is.

James Bantone uses photography, sculpture, video and painting in his work.   

What has been your experience with painting so far?

I'm self-taught. I don't consider myself a painter, which gives me a lot of freedom. Painting is belonging, in a sense. It’s the most stereotypical art form. I love playing with those codes. The idea is to make my work as inaccessible as possible, but still have fun with it while making something that I like—something that is also nice to look at.

Can you tell us about the body of work you're showing at MANIFESTO?

It’s a series called Fool of the Month. It explores smiling as a tool of torture. The idea came to me while reading James Baldwin’s Stranger in the Village. As a Black person in a village in Switzerland, he describes the process of smiling to people in order to make them feel safer. I wanted to examine this idea of overperforming by distorting how the models smile. 

The smile as an external manifestation of internal horror.

Exactly. It’s funny because I lose myself in them and these horrible images become beautiful. Someone was asking a friend of mine how people could be into that series, saying it was so disgusting and repulsive. And I'm like, “Well, that's what the work is about!”