Terrell James:  Intimate Immensity

by Alison de Lima Greene

In the autumn of 1997, Terrell James laid out a group of six works on paper in a vitrine in the back room of Houston’s Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery. Inspired in part by the field notes and color studies of nineteen-century plein air painters, she named the nascent series Field Studies, a title implying both the expansive spirit of exploration and the autographic specificity of record keeping.  Ranging from deep umbers and siennas to brighter touches of green, yellow, blue, and red, these first sketches evoked random encounters with land, sky, and sunlight.  James has explained: 

The Field Studies represent a sort of pun in painting.  As I key into the tradition of color note taking outdoors (in the field), the pieces convey specific colors as they appear in nature.  For example, the top four inches of Field Study No. 2 suggest notations in color, hues from a meadow I have mixed based on my direct observation. It feels like a meadow, my memory of experiencing a meadow, and may evoke “meadow” in a collective memory as well. [1]  

While James’s choice of title directs attention to landscape traditions, an equally important aspect of the Field Studies is their grounding in James’s studio practice.  Literally gathered from the floor of her studio, the initial Field Studies of 1997 were her “painting palettes,” ephemeral notations rather than finished compositions. Once they were extracted from the working environment and developed further, however, these sketches achieved a fresh authority, signaling a profound shift in James’s approach:

I am referring to the process of painting.  These works are very much quotations from my palettes, the direct artifacts or byproducts from the act of painting. . . .  Now flat, the marks, spills, and color patches attain a certain freedom or lack of formal structure; the order we once expected of painting is gone. The Field Studies broke my earlier tendency to treat a painting as a window into an illusory three-dimensional space.[2] 

As James recognized these complementary tendencies in the first sketches, she concentrated on developing the Field Studies into a significant body of intimate paintings. Working in the studio, using a light-weight synthetic vellum that offered an ideal surface for improvisation and play, James exploited the semi-transparent and non-porous support as a foil to test a brush’s touch or to try out new color harmonies. At the same time, she adopted a fixed vertical format, limiting each sheet to one of two sizes:  either 16 x 12 or 20 x 16 inches.

In 1998 James made the Field Studies the focus of an exhibition at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery.  Facing one large canvas, individual Field Studies, now framed and upright, anchored the main wall of the space.  Two years later, James presented twenty works from the series at The Old Jail Art Center. As documented in an installation view (see page XX), the Field Studies were successfully hung in a grid, creating a powerful visual dynamic, alternating between expansive and contracting compositions. Now spanning more than a decade, the Field Studies have come to function as an intermittent but consistent visual diary, both reflecting and punctuating the artist’s larger body of work.

The nine Field Studies represented in this volume are but a small fraction of the overall series, which at present numbers over XX examples (TJ, can you give an estimate here?).  Field Study No. XX, page 7, is closest to the origins of this project.  Like the working sheets or “palettes” James was at first willing to discard, the paper support is not treated as a precious material, and the oil medium is allowed to leach into the surface, creating the illusion of a substrate layer.  Even in this early work, however, James has set up a considered dialectic that will define the Field Studies.  The earth-toned colors and weighted forms echo the landscape, while the insistent energy of the brushwork, highlighted by dashes of white, attest to the pure joy and power of mark making.

James’s painterly and conceptual evolution has dictated many of the developments seen in subsequent Field Studies.  Sometimes a drawn line darts across the field or serves as a scaffold, sometimes pale afterimages challenge perception, and even the occasional collaged element is welcomed as well.  While never serving as literal studies for larger canvases or murals, the Field Studies frequently announce new themes and concerns.  Indeed, James’s frame of reference expands subtly throughout the series as she investigates new ways of considering the landscape, the body, and the mental and physical space of her studio environment. Two recent Field Studies, pages 14 and 15, attest to James’s present occupation with higher keyed and more primary colors, while the open, floating spaces of these sheets point to her experiments with taking painting out of the confines of the frame and into a dialogue with architecture.

The Field Studies have struck a profound chord with James’s public.  In part seduced by the associative notes embedded in James’s compositions, Allen R. Gee observed in 2002, “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.”[3]  Similarly, other admirers and collectors are drawn to the Field Studies as they offer a way into understanding the working process. Fellow artists have responded to the more formal aspects of the series, or what Sasha Dela has termed “the sense of object-ness and materiality of the paint and the spaces which reference landscape in very loose terms.”[4] As an art historian, I find it particularly tempting to relate the Field Studies to the notational sketches of John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. However, it is perhaps the working drawings of David Reed and Nicholas Wilder that offer the most telling parallels.  As Reed has noted, the first imperative of such compositions is to decipher “which of these blues and reds would go best with the larger patch of pale tan color at the bottom of the page.”[5]

Another way of considering the Field Studies is in relation to Gaston Bachelard’s concept of “intimate immensity,” discussed in his 1958 essays on The Poetics of Space.[6]  For Bachelard, intimate immensity “is the philosophical category of daydream.”  He explains further, “Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur.”[7]  James invites us down a similar path, one that combines the discipline of more than thirty years of mature studio practice with the intuitive insight of a daydream.  Seen individually, each Field Study is a fresh departure, intimate evidence of James picking up a brush, probing the page, measuring the field before the eye.  Taken as a whole, the series is an astonishing summation of what it means to make a commitment to the vast grandeur that can be charted through the creative imagination.

March 2010

Alison de Lima Greene
Curator of Contemporary Art & Special Projects
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

[1] Unpublished statement, 2001.  Courtesy of Terrell James.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Allen R. Gee, “Terrell James : Rouffignac & Field Studies,” ArtLies 37 (Winter – Spring 2002 – 2003): 89.

[4] Sasha Dela, “Interview with Terrell James,” Glasstire: Texas Visual Art Online (December 2008): http://glasstire.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2971&gtsect=Articles&gtcat=Interview

[5] David Reed, Rock Paper Scissors. (Cologne, Germany: Galerie Schmidt Maczollek and Kienbaum Artists’ Books, 2009), 64.

[6] Gaston Bachelard’s La poétique de l’espace was first published in 1958; references here are taken from the 1994 edition of The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

[7]  Ibid,  182.