The Meaning Behind the Monsters: When “Dark” Art Has More to Say

Paige Simianer | October 31, 2022

James Deeb believes that the greatest art is open-ended or unfinished.

Throughout Featured Artist James Deeb's extensive 35-year career as an artist, his work has most often been described as "expressive and dark."

Though this painter agrees with the former term, he takes pause at the latter. In his mind, "a work of art is only truly 'dark' when it indulges in some form of schadenfreude or morose delectation."

While a large proportion of Deeb's work deals with dark themes, his motive for creating is actually an attempt to find empathy and pathos for his subjects. However, for this artist, empathy and pathos have been hard to come by in recent years.

As a result, many pieces in his breadth of work are visual representations of fear and anxiety that he senses.

Through his creative process, this painter, self-proclaimed armchair philosopher, and "full-time devil’s advocate" is attempting to make use of his raw feelings and come to a form of understanding.


Artwork Archive got the chance to chat with James Deeb about his creative process, subject matter, and what he's working on now! You can see more of his work on Discovery and learn more about it below:

James Deeb, 'Breaking the Metrologist​'14 x 24 x 0.75 in


Has your work changed over time—do you find yourself understanding your art career through different periods of expression?

I’ve been creating art for more than 30 years, and my work has changed in that time (although slowly and gradually).

Some changes came about out of practical necessity. When I was in graduate school in the early ’90s, I had an immense studio that allowed me to make large-scale paintings. My current space is much smaller, and my largest work is easel sized.

Other changes were more aesthetic and philosophical. As a young artist, I was filled with a low boiling but constant anger that spilled into my work in the form of aggressive, heavy brush strokes, harsh colors, and even harsher and more aggressive subject matter. My current work bears some resemblance to what I was creating 20 or 30 years ago, but it is more considered.

I’ve slowed down my creative process and rarely feel the need to work in a frenzy. The heavy brushwork is still there but is paired with more subtle paint handling. The color is less harsh but still unusual. And the subject matter is less concerned with provoking outrage and more centered on eliciting pathos and empathy. 


Do you have a favorite or most satisfying part of your process?

A large number of my paintings begin with abstract mark-making. I used to start with charcoal and thin washes of oil paint, but to speed up the process I switched to charcoal and acrylic paint marker a few years ago.

The mark-making is followed by thick applications of oil paint that I use to explore color and shape. After a few (or several) sessions of push and pull, I arrive at a suggestion of a composition. It’s as if I have come to an agreement with the material on the work’s form.

This resolution is incredibly satisfying on its own, as it ushers in a new stage of refinement. I’ve gotten into the habit of documenting my process to record when this resolution happens. For example, the painting Figurehead (no. 1) went through a few stages before the composition took shape. By the third session, I saw the potential image and elaborated on it from there.

 James Deeb, 'Figurehead (no. 1)'12 x 12 x 0.75 in

You refer to your body of work as “art in a minor key". What made you interested in exploring your subjects in this expressive, almost gloomy-like style? 

When I refer to my work as “art in a minor key,” it’s my way of saying that much of my work has a feeling of melancholy.

The origin of my interest in this sense lies in my childhood. My father died suddenly at an early age. I was three years old at the time. This event and its repercussions cast a shadow over my life and was a major formative influence on my worldview. It’s an influence I feel to this day.

Given all that, however, I lead a relatively sedate life. Accepting this part of my personality, as opposed to denying it, has helped me more than it has hindered me. And judging by the reaction from much of my audience, I am not alone.


Some people may describe your work as "dark," but you don’t consider your work to fall under that term. Can you explain to those who may have that initial reaction what message your work is actually exploring?

I do balk when my work is referred to as “dark.”

I believe that truly dark artworks indulge in impulses like schadenfreude and morose delectation. On the other hand, I’m aware that I hold a minority opinion, and that for most, dark artwork is anything that does not offer any form of “uplift” (for lack of a better term).

I express my view when I’m able, and the reaction varies greatly. At the extremes are those who understand my point implicitly without the need for an explanation. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who will never accept my definition no matter how I articulate it. Among those in the middle ground, I find that many have difficulty explaining why they think my work is dark in the first place. This has led to some great conversations and points me to greater philosophical consideration.

I think that the greatest art is open-ended or unfinished.

The work is completed in a cycle of interpretation and reinterpretation by its viewers. I can describe my intent and even offer my own interpretation of any given work. For an artwork to stay vital, however, it must exist independently of me. If a portion of the audience interprets the intent of the work differently, it’s a sign that I’ve succeeded in creating compelling art.

Ultimately, that’s a more important outcome. 

As it is Spooky Season, do you have any art business horror stories that you have personally experienced? If so, how did you deal with them?

Who doesn’t love commiserating or even “one-upping” each other with a good art business horror story? I have a few, like ‘The Tale of the Gallerist Who Destroyed My Work’ or ‘The Chronicle of the Exhibition that Cost Me a Small Fortune.’ 

To be honest, however, I have almost never been completely blameless when it comes to these stories. I knew the gallerist’s lousy reputation and I knew shipping my work and attending the opening would cost an arm and leg.

I convinced myself that the outcomes would be different somehow and paid the price when events followed the most obvious path.

When thinking about any horror story, keep in mind that the monster didn’t find Dr. Frankenstein at random, but rather it was Dr. Frankenstein who created the monster.

James Deeb, 'Pyle’s Regiment', 60 x 40 x 3 in

Is there anything in particular that you’re working on right now that has you excited?

I’m currently working on two separate bodies of work that I’m excited about. The first is a series of tronies executed on sized but unprimed linen. This allows for large areas of the raw linen to be exposed in the final piece.

This is a departure for me in that it forces me to have a clearer idea of the final composition at the outset while maintaining the spontaneity of my more improvisational works. It’s a bit like gambling. In pieces like ‘A Thousand Cuts’ and ‘Creeping Bruise,’ there are also remnants of the original charcoal drawing that I made before moving on to oils that give a clue as to how I created these pieces. 

The second is a series of creatures from myth and folklore.

Each reflects my personal interpretation that often differs significantly from the source. For example, in my piece ‘Banshee,’ the haunting spirit emerges from the victim’s own mouth instead appearing outside, suggesting that the monster is a manifestation of the victim’s own thoughts. In other pieces, like ‘Lamia’ my intent is to simply show the monster with deference and even a bit of sympathy in the same way that I would view a tiger in the jungle.

James Deeb, 'Banshee'24 x 18 x 0.75 in


Why did you decide to use Artwork Archive to inventory/manage your artwork?

I decided to use Artwork Archive to manage my inventory because my previous system (if it could be called that) became more cumbersome with each new body of work. What started as a simple inventory list was then partially transferred to a spreadsheet.

Even at my most organized, I had difficulty finding entries and was never able to tie an artwork’s entry to its portfolio photography without a lot of tedious file manipulation.

I was also generating exhibition inventories, bills of sale and certificates of authenticity more or less manually.

With Artwork Archive everything is in one place: work entries, portfolio photography, exhibition history, sales, etc. It’s also much easier to generate custom inventories and other documents.

In short, Artwork Archive greatly simplifies the administrative side of being an artist, allowing me more time in the studio.

What advice would you give an emerging artist right now?

What advice would I give to an emerging artist? Here are a few quick points… 

Establish a schedule

Make time to work on your art regularly. Also, make time to get your work out in front of people. Both are important, but the second part is often overlooked.


Be patient and tenacious.

Overnight success is vanishingly rare, and what is perceived as luck is almost always proceeded by a lot of hard work.


Think clearly about risk and reward.

When you partner with someone on a project, be honest with yourself about how comfortable you are with the risks and rewards.

For example, if you’re asked to display your work in a non-art venue, like a cafe, be aware that you’re taking on almost all the risk (most likely in the time it takes to hang the show and whatever promotion you pay for) with little possibility for reward (in that people patronizing the cafe are unlikely to buy a work of art instead of the scone they came in for). The cafe owners bear no financial risk if your work doesn’t sell, and they are rewarded by simply having your work in their space.

I’m not suggesting to always turn down these kinds of opportunities. They have other potential benefits. In this case, you may want to experiment with curating and hanging a show in an unusual space. Often fostering goodwill is reason enough. What I am saying is that you should be as honest with yourself as possible when situations like this arise.


Travel if you’re able.

Travel can be expensive, but in the end, it’s refreshing and eye-opening.



Reading about the art world is fine, but you should also expand outside of it. Poetry and literature are obvious choices, but go wherever your interests lie. It will all feed your creativity, even if indirectly. I went through a phase where I read several books about quantum mechanics, and even though I never made a single work about subatomic particles, it did change how I perceive the world—and by extension, my work.


James Deeb uses Artwork Archive to inventory his artwork, document his creative process, and have everything he needs in one place. 

You can make an online portfolio, catalog your artwork, and generate reports like inventory reports, tear sheets, and invoices in seconds with Artwork Archive. Take a look at Artwork Archive's free trial and start growing your art business

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