His students know him as Gareth James, chair of Visual Arts Division in the School of the Arts, a young professor with a crisp British accent and an impressive command of modern French philosophy.
If you were around before 2001, however, you'd note his resemblance to Storm van Helsing, a character he created as his "open-source alter ego" in a project, entitled wRECONSTRUCTION, created for the American Fine Arts Gallery, a contemporary photography gallery in Lower Manhattan.
Rather than fill the gallery with objects or images, James "invented" a freewheeling international curator called Storm van Helsing, and had him "close" the gallery for the typical exhibition period of five weeks. During this time, the gallery's doors remained locked except to those guests invited to participate in scheduled private conversations concerning what the gallery might do when it reopened.
Storm is just one of a number of arts projects James has engaged in since he first arrived in New York in 1997 as a student enrolled in an interdisciplinary art program run by the Whitney Museum. The plan was to study for nine months and then return to his native London.
"I was all set to do that when the Wolfsonian Gallery in Miami gave me a show," says James. Upon his return from Miami, he was offered a job assisting the director of the Whitney's student program. Thus James, who at that point had "no apartment, a visa that was running out in a month, and $40 in my pocket," ended up staying in New York to pursue an arts career.
His relationship with Columbia began in the fall of 2003, when Jon Kessler, then chair of Visual Arts, asked him to come as a visiting artist to conduct studio visits with M.F.A. students. This adjunct work ultimately led to James being offered a full-time position, along with the chair, earlier this year.
James says that he plans to keep strengthening the Grad Studio program that brought him to Columbia in the first place. "So many of the most interesting artists, critics and art historians pass through New York," he says. "So the students have access to incredible feedback from the top people in their field."
A studio visit, he explains, is where the visiting critic visits the students in their studios and discusses both the students' finished work as well as their work in progress.
In addition to his Columbia responsibilities, James co-runs Orchard, a gallery on the Lower East Side, with 11 other artists and art historians; and he's about to launch Scorched Earth, a journal devoted to drawing.
With all of these activities, it's a wonder he finds the time to continue creating his own artwork. Although only 35, James has an impressive resume, having had shows in Berlin, Havana and London, among other cities.
A number of his pieces are currently on display at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Chelsea. The New York Times characterized the show as "tough but elegant." But he prefers to describe it as "a slightly insane form of amateur origami: most of the pieces are life-size objects constructed out of one single continuous sheet of solid blue-purple paper."
When talking to James about his work, you get the sense that he's a great teacher. First, there's his ability to segue from a normal conversation, about the weather or soccer scores, into a discussion of how conceptual art deconstructs its subjects.
He attributes his conversational versatility to his student days in London. Because the school he attended offered few art theory classes, James would get together with friends for impromptu study groups.
"That's how I learned all about French philosophers Michel Foucault and Giles Deleuze," he says, adding that he encourages his students to become comfortable with talking about theory rather than seeing it as "an external discourse" they have to learn to get a degree. "Theory is how you understand your life and your work," he asserts.
As befits his informal style, James advocates treating his students as equals and attempting to understand their interests. He is also open to the occasional role reversal, urging his students to attend his gallery showings and give him detailed feedback.
"I enjoy hearing what they think and learning what they saw in my work," he says. "I think it sometimes makes it easier for them to understand where I'm coming from when I critique the work they're doing."