James Sheehan
Career Narrative
Career Narrative: James Sheehan

I was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area, Northern California suburbs pre-Silicon Valley era. In 1986, I attended UC Berkeley to study Art History and Fine Arts as an undergraduate. My study focus was Modernism: 1848 to Present in Art History while taking art classes with inspiring teachers like Joan Brown, Richard Shaw, Chris Brown and James Melchert. Through their eager encouragement for me to continue making art and having access to experiencing Hans Hoffmann’s work at the University Museum, I decided to pursue painting seriously instead of following a line with academia. Heavily influenced by the Bay Area Figurative tradition with such artists like David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Joan Brown that utilized an Abstract Expressionist physicality of using paint with an active gesture – very formal with a certain Californian whimsy, I began working with vigor and quickly applied to graduate school.
In 1992, I was accepted at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia through Temple University. Seeking an “east coast” experience, I indulged the proximity to New York and the art scene there.
For my second and final year at Tyler, I was awarded the opportunity to go to Rome, Italy and have my thesis exhibition there. In Rome I was deeply inspired by Baroque architecture and the guidance of Stanley Whitney who I studied under there. Wanting to make paintings that drew one in physically akin to Boromini and Bernini’s architecture, as well as Stan Whitney’s color experiments in his work, I began making very small works – 2” x 2” single monochrome colored panels on wood - that spread throughout the space vertically and horizontally like digitized optical bits composed on the wall - floor to ceiling. The effect transformed the entire space to allow distractions of pure color to draw and refract attention – animating a bodily involvement with color. Soon thereafter, I began painting representational scenes of large, crowded spaces on a few of the colored panels that would provide a narrative focus and could draw the viewer into an illusory space beyond the physical. Through the process of engaging a viewer to study the craftsmanship of something so delicate on such a small ground led me to explore content which became much more detailed, painterly, and intimate. This drew me into a connection with the miniaturist tradition which many people like to associate me - extending back to the Elizabethan era and beyond - pre photography. My interest to explore content that spoke about vastness and monumentality as a painting experience at this tiny scale concentrated a deep focus that I am still passionately involved with. Some 25 years later I am still chasing the perfect image that transcends space and time with painting bridging the viewer to the object as image.
In 1994 I moved to New York City and shared a studio with a sculptor friend before transitioning to a private painting studio space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn a few years later.
In 1997, I received a year-long studio residency grant through the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation that allowed me to open my studio to a wider public. This grant along with a $15,000. grant from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation around this time provided me with the proper space and funds to make large work and present them in a way the works should be seen. The large works are usually the size of an entire wall – some 10 by 15 feet, where the subject matter – more intimate in content - attempts to overwhelm your physical and peripheral space creating an interesting counter-monumentality to the small works.
Around 1998 and into the early 2000’s in New York around this time, the positive exposure of my work allowed me to connect with various curators and dealers through which I received solo shows in New York, Zurich and Cologne which generated very positive feedback in the media – the New York Times, Time Out, The New Yorker, BOMB, Art Forum, and Arte in Italy.
In 2000, I was awarded a 6 month studio residency in the World Trade Center on the 91st floor where I “performed” a 2” x 2 ½” painting (“Halcyon Days”) of the view looking up Manhattan from 9 to 5pm in step with the workers in that building – Tower One.
In 2001, I was offered a speaking engagement at the Whitney Museum where I discussed a huge ancillary collage project called “the Source” which I had exhibited in the World Trade Center. A large part of my studio practice entails working on interconnected projects in other mediums which supplement the individual paintings. I make hour-long music based soundtracks for each painting which I have recorded from micro-condensed fragments of noise, text, and music meant to explore varying ways in which a single image leads complex meta-narratives through time. “The Source” involves thousands of found images that I have collected over thirty years assembled on over 700 pages of 16” X 22” paper. It’s a form to fuse multiple images into a singular, narrative dialogue. These projects are stand-alone works. The process of making these elaborate projects is centered on my work as a painter essentially in which one singular thought resides within a vast universe of supporting material to give additional weight to the paintings function.
In August 2001, I was awarded a 6-month residency grant in Japan through ARCUS in Moriya, a small town 2 hours outside of Tokyo, where I represented the United States. My work was featured on many television shows in Japan along with multiple interviews and a group exhibition in Tokyo in 2002.
Corresponding with being highlighted in Art Forum magazine in February 2002 as an “Artist to Watch” by Katy Siegel, my work gained nice exposure. I participated in numerous group shows in Zurich, Moscow, Chicago, New York such as “Painting as Paradox” at Artists Space 2002 and “American Dream” at Ronald Feldman Gallery in 2003.
The 2003 exhibition “Ehrensaal” at the Haus der Kunst Museum in Munich Germany was a profound leap for exhibiting my work. In the infamous Facist building that Hitler built to showcase great German art and degrade “degenerate” art at the time, the curator for this show sought to disrupt that kind of monumentality by including artists that worked very minimally striking a different interpretation of monumentality. It was around this time that I began showing the work inserted “into” the wall making the plane of the wall meet the surface of the painting. The effect instantly turns the architecture into a frame putting the viewer into the context of its space.
In 2004, “Working in Brooklyn” at the Brooklyn Museum brought me back to my context in New York. I gave a lecture at The National Academy Museum in 2004 speaking on the miniaturist tradition in America and my work.
I was awarded a NYFA grant in 2006.
The past 15 years have been active with various museum and gallery exhibitions. My studio practice is intensely focused yet multifaceted. I work on many paintings at once, stretching over many months and sometimes into years. I work at different scales with pieces as small as 1 by 1 inch and others at 10 by 10 feet. I seek a certain sense of monumentality and intimate physicality with these challenging shifts in scale as well as spatially and conceptually complex subject matter.
As a teacher of painting at the 92nd St Y Art Center, where I have been teaching for the last 15 years, I’ve focused on color theory and the use of color which has deeply influenced my work in the studio. I adhere to the optical effects of pushing and pulling plasticity with color and my use of paint has become more physically engaged – gaining a very sculptural quality.
In this time, in which truth of content is ever-malleable and meaning so amorphous via cell phones, painting alone gives the capacity to monumentalize pause. Ideally spatial, both figuratively and metaphysically, I cull from images that speak volumes and pitch complex formal restrictions relative to scale. I choose images that are plastic enough to gain weight through the long process of painting them. Content concerning the concept of vastness bleeds into many facets of interpretation. I find this leads craftsmanship to come forward due to their increasing complexities with support materials like the soundtracks and collages. As a single image draws more complexity due to our physical response drawing you into narrative, we gain an emotional transcendence.
In March 2018, I had a serious health crisis in which a bacterial infection in my brain led to numerous brain surgeries. I almost died. Fortunately I was able to gain back my ability to walk, move my arms and swallow through intense rehabilitation. A year later, I have returned to teaching, swimming regularly and have become very active in my studio. In 2019, I exhibited new works that many people found exciting which has encouraged me to pursue a new direction for my work – quite different yet deep. Considering, of course, my thorough investigation into miniature, bodily involvement with narrative and abstraction as well as the multi-dimensional character of content transcending physical engagement, my work continues.
Brain Injury - Color and Rehabilitation - 2018 text for exhibition
JAMES SHEEHAN: Color and Rehabilitation
In March 2018, I experienced a devastating bacterial infection in my brain that required immediate surgery, placing me near death. The ordeal left me in the hospital for three months which weakened my motor as well as cognitive functions. I have been through extensive therapy to address these deficits. My identity as an artist was sabotaged by the illness and it greatly impacted my process for living relative to a creative system that I felt defined me.
This year has been enormously transformative and challenging—finally landing on a much healthier plane of being, thankfully. With great effort, I have miraculously regained my sense of self as I returned to the studio to finish projects and begin new ones these past 6 months. I am VERY active in the studio these days with bold new works in process that I am excited about.
Seeking a level state of balance, I hope to find a sense of full recovery through the success of these works and my ability to discuss them. I am thrilled to share these paintings with my community of students, teaching peers and you that have been so supportive.
I realize that this story is rather dramatic. Yet, we all experience debilitating health challenges at some point in our lives. Where do we gather our sense of consistency beyond our physical strength? The recovery process for me has been slow and arduous as I have eagerly sought to get back on my feet and retain a certain sense of normalcy. Painting has brought me back, thankfully. Through art, as a form of expression, I have experienced a tremendous source of healing. Very simple daily capabilities for living, that I had to re-learn—such as being able to swallow properly, stretch my arms to full extension, walk without a walker, use of my short-term memory—all have challenged me. Each painting has a huge story to tell, but now, they all take on a multi-dimensional transcendence for me.
Of note - I've been consumed with donating time to a little local Elementary school here in Brooklyn. I have spent the last 2 years helping lead the schools PTA as co-President which has taken considerable time and attention away from painting. This is not to say that I have been remiss with my duties as to my focus. In fact, I think this experience has led me into new insight for how the work is perceived and challenged. I'm still a painters painter at heart and am now returning - albeit slowly - early 2017. This PTA involvement came about through my daughter as I saw her school cutting the art, music and dance programs due to lacking funds and commitment. Believing my skills could be of use there - I engaged local politics - used some diplomatic skills I think I have - and melded with like-minded parents. With these few other committed parents, we turned the flailing PTA at the school into a non-profit organization, attained a 501c3 - non-profit status, built community events, paid off a $5000 debt, and turned the PTA into a fully functioning "parent motivated" voice for our community. By the end of the first year, we made over $65,000 to go straight to Arts enrichments and helped muscle through a $250,000 grant for a "Green STEM" lab through Participatory Budgeting. All for a local "low income" public school in Greenpoint Brooklyn. This year we hope to achieve an even stronger base by engaging parents and kids to rise up and make positive change happen. It's so possible. After this year - I'll step down and get back into the studio in a big way. So I'll be getting out there again in some form or other. I'm itching to paint.
Greenpoint Open Studios 2016
This weekend - April 30 - May 1st. Come see what I've been working on
2 - 6pm Saturday and Sunday

"Barely There" Lesley Heller Workspace
Exhibition: barely there, curated by Pamela Matsuda-Dunn
October 28 through December 6, 2015

Lesley Heller Workspace
54 Orchard St New York, NY 10002 212-410-6120

Barely There, curated by Pamela Matsuda-Dunn, brings together a group of contemporary artists whose work emphasizes discovery through installations that invite close looking. There is the surprise of the initial view – followed by a careful closing in on each piece. Their work is interwoven and sometimes embedded into the physical features of the exhibition space. Each of these artists’ work explores the theme of the exhibition in different ways – through textural changes, by filling space or simply defining it, by playing with shadow and light, or sometimes by challenging you to find it and then engage in the tiny universe it creates by having drawn you into its orbit. Echoing the wry and elegant spatial interventions of Richard Tuttle or Fred Sandback yet invoking a host of personal references, Barely There addresses themes of presence and absence, place and presentation. Each artist has established working methods that resonate strongly with these themes.
The linear abstractions of Jong Oh proposes paradoxes in the viewer’s experience, while Susan Graham’s white-on-white sugar and porcelain sculptures and the dusky transparency of Naoko Ito’s wire piece read like memory shadows. The viewer may well walk past James Sheehan’s work, but once they spy these tiny paintings, under an inch in any dimension, the work asks the viewer to draw near – very near. Jonathan Rider’s work is also miniscule in its individual components, but the accumulation is greater than its parts, inviting the viewer to follow its path. These artists entrance, seduce, and challenge the viewer to consider an aesthetic experience in which the work subtly, but fully alters the environment it inhabits.
"Headstrong" at Adam Baumgold Gallery June 12 - Aug 7 2015
60 EAST 66TH ST.
NEW YORK, NY 10065

A varied group of excellent artists - with interesting pieces from a variety of mish-mashed contexts - all brought together under a loose themed heading. I always love the shows he puts together - plenty of whimsy - nicely accessible - always worth the trip.
The Drawing Center - Installation (up now)
SoHo - New York City
January 23 2015 - Saturday October 31 2015
"Death of Malevich" watercolor on matt Board, 7/8" x 1"
installed INTO the wall

from Time Out New York - Jan 7 2015
You're going to have to look a bit hard for this long-term installation by ultraminiaturist James Sheen: It consists of a postage-stamp–size watercolor, embedded in a basement corridor. The image is based on a 1935 photo of the Russian avant-gardist Kasimir Malevich on his deathbed, surrounded by his works, including what is perhaps his most famous painting, Black Square, seen hanging over his head. Sheehan is perhaps drawing parallels between Malevich's work and his own, comparing his brand of visual absolutism (he rarely works on a scale larger than two inches in any dimension) to that of Malevich.
"at the lek" - solo Exhibition - Jan 16 - Feb 15 2015 (now)
James Sheehan
at the lek
Songs for Presidents
1673 Gates Avenue (lower level),
 Ridgewood, Queens NYC
subways:  L train M train at Myrtle-Wyckoff
Jan 15 - Feb 16 2015

With at the lek, James Sheehan presents a new body of paintings that ruminate on the nature of creativity, mortality and what it means to make a mark.  His work has long been noted for its approach to scale (many of the paintings are miniscule).  However, his use of scale is misleading. Avoiding the freakish spectacle of painting “on the head of a pin,” the work invites the viewer to trip into a playful dialogue with a single image as an experience. He acknowledges that the act of seeing is something that we do with our whole bodies, not just with our eyes. Through this act of seeing, we open ourselves up to the vastness of history and the specificity of place.
In Sheehan’s words, Scale of these works in relation to the architecture, viewer and socio-political environment are key to their content. Meticulous, miniscule form has a spatial counterpart that is vast and expansive; bodily/physically experienced. This is my painterly dilemma as well as my political one. "Entering in" versus "surrounded by" mean something in this context. Intimate yet boundless formally, I want to bring forward a slower, transcendent absorption of an image, to broaden the conversational or dialectical context for that image as it is being interpreted.
"Small." at The Drawing Center
New York
Jul 11, 2014 - Aug 24, 2014

This group exhibition features a selection of international contemporary artists who adopt an intimate format to explore issues related to visual perception, personal and historical memory, the construction of gender stereotypes, and the power of the imagination. In an age when cavernous galleries and outsized images and objects suggest that bigger is necessarily better, working small carries a certain risk. It is a risk, however, that the nine artists in the exhibition are willing to take as they create minute worlds that absorb the viewer while resisting possession. The selected works range from graphite photo-realist renderings to interventions in found objects to site-specific installations, including a custom-made tabletop bearing microscopic figurations and a postage-stamp-sized watercolor inserted directly into the gallery wall. The artists in Small. are: Firelei Báez (b. 1981, Santiago de los Trenta Caballeros, Dominican Republic), Emmanouil Bitsakis (b. 1974, Athens, Greece), Paul Chiappe (b. 1984, Kircady, Scotland), Claire Harvey (b. 1976, United Kingdom), Tom Molloy, (b. 1964, Waterford, Ireland), Rita Ponce de León (b. 1982, Lima, Peru), Peggy Preheim (b. 1963, Yankton, SD), James Sheehan (b. 1964, San Francisco, CA), and Tinus Vermeersch (b. 1976, Belgium).

Curated by Claire Gilman, Curator, and Joanna Kleinberg Romanow, Assistant Curator.
"Lil' ArtWorld" at Harbor Gallery
17-17 Troutman #258 in Ridgewood (Bushwick)
curated by Craig Montieth
May 17th - June 15th 2014
showing 7 paintings form early 2000's

Lil’ Artworld presents a group of works that can’t just be looked AT- they must be looked INTO. The artists use transformative shifts in scale to suggest continuous other-worlds in which their work resides. What results is an expansion of energy produced by an intense draw on the imaginative powers. Consequently, the artwork is given room to breathe, as are the viewers, in the midst of the chaos that will be Bushwick Open Studios.
"Before the Fall: Remembering the World Trade Center"
New York State Museum - Albany, NY
September 9th, 2011 - May 2012
"Gum" curated by Charles Goldman
at Gridspace Oct 2010 Brooklyn, NY