Terrell James: Rouffignac & Field Studies

by Allen R. Gee

Terrell James’ most recent canvases reflect the conviction and knowledge of a skillful painter whose work is constantly evolving.  Her abiding interest in nature and organic forms reoccurs, illiciting a likeness to landscapes without being depictive or illustrative.  She offers in this exhibit an Abstract Expressionism that conveys new meanings and points of departure on both small and large scales.

In the Rouffignac series, nothing is imitative or superimposed.  The paintings immediately engage and ask to be experienced with each viewer’s physical, visual, and mental capacities.  We are offered gray backgrounds and black, yellow, pink, white, orange, green, or sometimes blue lines, and curved forms.  James has spoken of these forms as being from “within the body,” or deriving from her history of drawing fossils and minerals.  Rouffignac refers to the prehistoric cave of Rouffignac in France.  James’ images might be from within a cave, as light enters at different times of day, or her paintings can inspire the experience of peering into a geode, encountering striations of reflected light, or gazing at a plentitude of ancient cave paintings.  Most intriguing is how many of James’ images resembled the artwork at Rouffignac before she visited the cave.

Rouffignac offers us canvasses with forms suggesting pictograms and neolithic art.  At Rouffignac in France, visitors find drawings of bison, ibex, rhinoceros and mammoth dating back 130 centuries, and as in most cave art there is a central theme: the mammoth (the largest painting there, among 154 pachyderm images, is The Mammoth With The Eye).  James’ larger Rouffignac canvases evoke the feeling of sizeable subterranean space.  The painterly surface of Cat In The Hat, its blacks and grays, are like rock and water, funnelling us in, delivering us to a cavern or another realm of the imagination.  Drummer uses reds superbly to conjure vibrant emotion; one’s own drummer might be within the forms, or one might be experiencing the energy of drumming.  In Brute (At Play), there is a large central black form—perhaps James’ own mammoth—and while the painting surface is rough, literally heavy, there is also an embryonic feel.  A sense of movement is illicited, thwarting the conventional illusion of the painting as window.  This is both technically impressive and aesthetically admirable. 

As Abstract Expressionism should, these paintings begin in sight and move into thought, but always invite re-viewing and further ponderance.  Lines and shapes can become mineral veins or deposits, runnels of water, clasts, or boulders.  Depths wait to be plumbed.  A temporal element can also occur—light filters down from far above at varying times of day, or in different seasons.  Geological time is also suggested; in the same way that an ocean floor can become a desert plain, we can feel a journey from a cave to a canvas, or from the canvas to elsewhere.  And since the Rouffignac paintings don’t end at the edge of the canvas, they inspire a viewer to imagine scenes beyond, transforming an entire immediate wall, room, or space.

Field Studies, are oil on vellum paintings from an ongoing series that conveys the artist’s evolving relationship with color.  Begun in 1997, the series stems from James’ random examinations of her color pallets; her own color field has become a muse or a new landscape to learn from.  There are cornflower blue streaks, splashes of china white, strokes of mustard, shadow grays, tangerine swirls, and dabs of Easter pink.  These paintings tell us about how the volume and shades of color can affect us, or how the act of painting itself can bring up feeling, and how warm and cool colors inform one another, always unveiling mood and memory.

Rouffignac and Field Studies, 2001, 2002 exhibit beautifully side by side; they are compelling because the act of painting, a visual language that speaks, is present in each canvas.  The impressions we take, seeing, recognizing and feeling, are exceptional.  There is the unconscious, the present moment, and there is history.  Most of all, James’ art reveals a realm for the innocent or experienced eye; her paintings are an achievement because what each canvas means, fortunately, is left to us.  

October 2002