by Elizabeth McBride
We come to a work of art with a sense of wonder and an appreciation of structure. We like to say form and content are the same, but even when they are truly bonded, it is a fortunate accident or the result of a great talent. But something innate in our species, in the very structures in our minds our storytelling ability perhaps, brings artists to new, shocking forms of expression. Hence we may rebel against our aesthetic, defy it, and refuse to fit ourselves into its familiar paradigm. This rebellion requires us to change our aesthetics because also innate in our species is the ability is the ability to recognize works of art as works of art, even when they break the vessels.
How many times have I written this passage over and over, in endless variations, as if the very writing of it could make it true? Perhaps it is true, who knows? We are as uncertain of our actual concrete existence today as we were in far past, when the Greek philosophers, the Atomists, entertained these questions. All there is left for us to do today, all we can ever do, is pose the right questions.
Terrell James has said she is in love with painting. She has been making art all of her life, beginning as soon as she could make drawings. “I was one of those people who were lucky enough to have paper and pencils around when I was a child,” she has said, and “I was always wanting to show it, as soon as I finished, taking my work to my mother for approval, saying, ‘Look at this.’”
Modestly, for James is one painter whose inner life is reflected in her work, she would also say that she was lucky enough to attend Sewanee, the University of the South, where she was encouraged, and to work in Smithsonian’s national research project, the Archives of American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which gave her the day job most artists need while they are maturing. James considers her teaching position at the Glassell School of Art not so much as a day job as an experience that interacts with her work, and the occasional commission as a challenge she believes is critical to growth. Now her paintings reach out nationally and internationally, and she is able to devote her time to her greatest passion.
To consider the works of the painter Terrell James, we will consider the issue of influences, the historical evolution of our ideas of perspective, the possibility of translating cultural influences into one’s own paintings, the beauty of nature, and the nature of beauty. We will also explore the notion of home, perhaps the most essential issue of all.
The question of influences is one of great interest to James, an issue that the critic Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence”. But we might instead speak of permissions, the traditions an artist builds upon and then in some cases, surpasses. But we also have to consider the nature of time, and the way in which the teacher and the artist influence each other, as well as the deliberate way in which both artists and writers protect their fictive imaginations. And James also considers her environment, growing up in Houston where things didn’t last, where buildings were constantly being torn and replaced with new constructions, and contrasted with the environment of New Orleans, where there was a layered heritage. She definitely mentions painters as influences, such as Turner and Goya, for their treatments of light. And she felt washed by the clear color of water in the Caribbean, and influenced by Mexican painters for their magical ways of seeing.
Equally important to James is perspective, beginning with Renaissance perspective and progressing to her present interest in cave painting, written about most recently in a book of the same title by Gregory Curtis. This progression led James to Mexico to explore the way in which the columns in major Aztec and Maya cities may be perceived as presenting themselves as larger or smaller, depending on color, and in the case of Cave Painting, by overlapping animals painted inside other animals to create the sense of distance, the larger outlines representing those which are closer and the smaller, those which are farther away. Her exploration of this kind of perspective has led her to the cave of Rouffignac, and to a new site which has created in James the same compelling inspiration. When we reach these issues of abstraction, we touch upon the way it has progressed, back and fourth over time. It is paradoxical that the most famous of the twentieth century Abstract Expressionists, Jackson Pollock, considered himself, as does James, to be abstracting from nature. The major difference seems to be a difference in the perceived depth. If Pollack’s decentered surface seems to pulse outward, capturing meaning through skeins interlacing surface, instead of retreating inward as James’ does. This may be an actual process, or a misreading inspired by the influence of feminism or even by Heraclites’ musings about the forever changing state of nature. Or what if these new paintings are not only the history of painting, the history of perception and awareness, but in addition the presentation of the actual structure of thought, that which makes us who and what we are.
As a painter whose work seems to have visual ties to “The Floating World” that oriental world represented in the early novels of Ishiguru, who when displaced to England wrote The Remains of the Day, James is asking whether one may fully participate in the sensibility of another culture. The Edward Said reader is the major text of Orientalism in this country, but this text has been criticized as flawed by the fact that what enables an artist of the west to experience the orient from is the crumbling of categories, and it is precisely that crumbling that destabilizes Said’s thesis. Those who believe that Christian prayer and Buddhist meditation are strikingly similar experiences would themselves question Said’s Orientalism. And we are certainly clear that the wisdom of the east can penetrate the selfhood of the West, as it did for T.E. Lawrence, and that many individuals may learn to write a second language as did Joseph Conrad.
Perhaps the deepest concern of all artists is beauty, definitely not prettiness, but Keatsian beauty expressed in the lines
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”
Certainly that is the concern of the compelling book On Beauty, by ______, which argues that only beauty can by comparison lead us to recognize that which is ugly. But what if ugliness can teach us what beauty is? And what if there really isn’t any difference? Here might be helpful to consider the beautifully challenging and formally gripping work of the artist Sue Coe.
We might say that nobody walks past the Mona Lisa without looking twice. Having been to the Louve, I can certainly testify to that. But if great art is that which is kept alive by a passionate few aren’t Sue Coe’s paintings great art? We can’t get them out of our minds. They live on in us, just as those we love live on in us. And how can we look at Sue Coe’s heart rendering paintings depicting the cruelty we visit upon the animal world and not hold them in our minds? Not be compelled to re-address them? Painted in black and white, their compositions are fine. Curves are balanced by straight lines. And the harsh cruelty we ourselves visit upon the animal world captures our hearts and our imaginations.
Who are we to decide that animals are less sentient than we are? Ask the elephants, who move in herds, suckle their young, and bury their dead. They have even been to bury the dead those they have killed in their defense. For that matter, ask the lobsters, herd animals who crawl together, over the ocean floor. Who are we to decide that the great apes are less sentient than we are, when close observers understand that they exhibit altruistic behavior? Even birds flying high in the sky exhibit that same altruism as the one flying on point gives way to another. Altruism is probably a universal trait, as common as story telling.
And finally, we must look at what home means, the very creation of an idea of home as we follow it through history until it finally becomes remarking memorable in the Dutch paintings of the 17th century, those of Vermeer, for instance. Vermeer’s paintings so entrance us that at the last American exhibition at the national Gallery, people were actually behaving themselves. We know that great architecture can make us transcendent, that great literature can make us transcendent, and so why not great art? That is how strongly we long for that sense of home. We want to be there, to remain there. And that is what Terrell James’ paintings give us.
There are many ways to think of home. It may be in our bodies, our minds, and our environments. Or it may be in our environments, our bodies and then in our minds, and it may even go even deeper than that, in what we are universally, underneath and inside our minds. Terrell James’ paintings strike us as home because a look-er becomes a see-er, one who wanders through them as through and un-earthy world, a world so deep that there is no consciousness where we can exist even before thought as we are being taken back in history and forward while still existing in the present time. And that is what makes the Paintings of Terrell James come alive.