From Texas: 150 Works from the Museum of Fine Arts Houston

by Alison de Lima Greene

In formal terms, Terrell James [is] primarily concerned with the spatial layering revealed by a study of landscape. James, a native of Houston, attended the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, where the painter Edward Carlos was among her mentors. A stint as assistant director for the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art Texas Project in the early 1980s led her to compile a comprehensive archive on Forrest Bess (see plate 12), whose work has profoundly affected James's largely independent evolution.

In 1990, James embarked on a series of large oil drawings on paper that drew their inspiration from landscape imagery. The later drawings of the series, including A License to Thought, 1992 (plate 99), were based upon sketches the artist made while visiting the Monte Verde cloud forest reserve in Costa Rica. James synthesized careful observations taken from nature with an essentially abstract imagination. The L-shaped form which dominates the center of the composition was taken from a study of a waterfall, while other notations reflect plant forms.(1)

The compositional restraint of A License to Thought invites close examination. James uses washes of pigment and passages of collage to chart a remarkable depth of surface with minimal means. This process of examination becomes associative, as James scrutinizes the way in which memory is triggered by even the most tenuous evidence: "I am interested in the viewer's participation in my work. There is the painting, then there is something that happens between the viewer and the painting: a sort of second painting." Daniel Stern commented further: "To gaze at a painting of Terrell James's is to enter into an experience in the making: painting in which the act of painting continues on as the eye wanders the finished surface. Each painting is completed by each individual encounter."

(1) The artist has commented that the title of the work advocates intellectual freedom, and was given in response to the climate of opinion that dominated the art world during the attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. Terrell James, conversation with the author, 28 October 1998