by George T.M. Shackelford
To look carefully at the works of Terrell James—and there really is no other way to look at them—is to be both soothed and mystified. Her paintings are soothing because of her conspicuous mastery of color and her ability to put paint onto canvas or panel in such a way as to give pleasure to the eye. Her paintings are mystifying because they provoke the viewer to see things, to imagine things, to question those imaginings, and to leave off looking at a painting with as many questions as answers.
Often James’s pictures pose us perceptual challenges that are relatively easily understood. Above/Below, a large canvas from 2018, places the viewer in a dual spatial relationship to earth and its geology. The juxtaposition of large and small shapes, of rock-like forms defined by the dominant warm beige ground with adjacent passages of watery blues and greens, hints at a concrete, three-dimensional world of boulders and fractured rock, pools and waterfalls. The suggestion of crevices, of slight interstices between these compositional shapes, allows the viewer to imagine entering the painting as a small animal might, nestling in the passages black and dark blue between the pictorial elements, being sheltered by them, away from sight.
Then, and maybe all at once, the plane of the canvas reasserts itself and it as if we are looking down upon a geological pattern from a great height. The curving contours of what were boulders become the traces of a river over geological time. The patches of blue-gray at lower right that had been dimensional shadows flatten into shapes on a topographical survey.
A similar flattening effect is more forceful in in Coastlines and Glyphs, 2018, which is a small painting, no larger than a folding map of a foreign country. At first glance, the patches of blue at left and at lower right immediately read as “ocean,” the vivid and various greens lower left and to the right seem to denote “land.” Blocks of color applied on underlayers of another hue—the turquoise squares atop chartreuse green at the lower left, for instance—read like the meaningful patterns of geography we admire on maps, perhaps the maps that show the borders of out of date linguistic patterns or the proprietors of chateaux, the denominations and classifications of varietal wines. Repetitions of a hue from one patch to another –the black-gray that grows ever more tinged with green as it step-stones from upper left to lower center—likewise suggest familiar relationships between the parts of the painting. “I’m alone here,” one might seem to say, “but I have allies nearby.”
If Coastlines and Glyphs maintains its map-like, topographical impression, reasserting the picture plane after repeated viewings, such is not the case with Above-Below. Turning back to look at it a second or third time, and expecting to see another bird’s eye view again, the viewer is confounded: suddenly three dimensions reassert themselves; once again we enter deep space, standing before the landscape forms, looking up at overhanging cliffs, or down into cold pools of glacier water.
Trying to describe James’s paintings, geographical and geological metaphors and similes are not only helpful in making sense of them to a new audience but also meaningful in terms of evoking and describing the ways in which the artist actually works. First there are the titles that she gives to her paintings, so many of which are about spaces and places and ways of looking at the concrete world. Above/Below and Coastlines and Glyphs are but two. There are also Changing Place, Escape, and Walkers, all evoking movement and measuring distances, as does Hunters Map. Then Tidal Threshold, Piece of the World, or Shells on the Moon call to mind the wandering, gathering, and collecting of bits of things: sea glass, a bit of marble, an otherworldly fossil.
Some titles relate to the geographic circumstances of a work’s creation. Montauk, for instance, a canvas from 2010 (one of the earlier works in this exhibition), was begun and largely completed while James was a resident at the Montauk, Long Island, barn spaces of the foundation established by playwright and arts patron Edward Albee in support of writers and visual artists. As James described it, the appearance of the painting—dominated by broad bands of essentially unmodulated turquoise, scarlet, and black paint—resulted from an uncharacteristic decision to prepare her canvases before shipping them to New York with “grounds” that were unusually bright in hue. These aggressively-colored and boldly rolled-on substrates contradicted her usual working method, which often relies on using loose and transparent washes of color over pale ivory or white grounds.
Imagine the prepared canvas, then, four by eight feet in size, looking not like a great rectangle of white, but like a psychedelic Barnett Newman or a particularly pungent Mark Rothko laid on its side. Rather than subsuming the colors of the ground in layers of organic shapes that would have camouflaged or at least dampened the aggressive color, James decided to use the intense planes of color as foils for gestural patterns of paint in the manner of a Japanese calligrapher, using an intense green mixed with opaque white and loosely brushed on top of black to suggest the stems and leaves of poppy flowers, on top of red to evoke a wisp of fragrance or the tendrils of a pea vine, and more thinly, over turquoise, in swirls that suggest a stalk coaxed by Jean Arp into a womanly shape. Scumbles of heliotrope bring to mind flowery clouds of bougainvillea.
More often, though, James builds her complex surfaces up through a process that balances intuition and calculation. To follow the photographic record of a painting’s evolution over time is to see a beginning idea take hold, be developed, perhaps abandoned altogether as new ideas emerge, or to find its way back to the surface at the end of a process, as if a memory had returned in a flash to reassert itself at the end of a long reverie. Or as if a patch of colored stone broke through the complex strata that had been placed on top of it.
Inside the Emerald City, for instance, a vertical measuring six and a half by five feet, began its life as a horizontal. Broad patches of white, straw-yellow, and pea-green provided the ground against which a loose series of emerald-green lines were freely drawn, looking like a vine drawn by Henri Matisse or Ellsworth Kelly. Next, almost all the green lines were covered with more broad patches, this time of sapphire blue, more emerald green, and a drab khaki color—leaving a few bright spots of yellow glowing through. Next, squiggles of pale pinkish ivory were introduced irregularly over the surface, suggesting receding forms, like Claude Monet’s water lilies on a pond surface. The canvas was then rotated ninety degrees counter-clockwise, so that the largest yellow patch crossed by green lines was no longer at left but at the bottom, and now floating vertical shapes in pale mauve pink were developed from the roughly horizontal squiggles, interspersed across patches of blue and green, and now looking like figures receding into a distance.
Over all this, a network of thin lines, vein-like, was introduced, returning to the overall design something of the organic linearity that it first had shown. Then, briefly, the canvas was rotated clockwise to its original orientation (the patch of yellow once again at left) and a color accent, inspired by the color of a dried apricot James held in her hand, was applied at right. In the final canvas, that intense “intervention” of rusty pink was knocked back, but its warmth was added here and there to other rosy shapes. And by the time the painting was done, it had been rotated ninety degrees once more, so that the patch of yellow with the bold green line finds its final place at the top of the composition.
The patch of apricot that lived, for a time, among the greens and blues of Inside the Emerald City is not a fluke in James’s working practice. Many more such temporary marks are invisible, buried beneath the present surface layers of these complex, stratified, painterly structures. Sometimes, on the other hand, an “object” may emerge along the way that, once discovered, demands to be retained. Again and again through James’s recent work, idiosyncratic shapes are scattered, like signs, usually noticeable for their strategic discontinuity with their surroundings. Such a one is the “equals sign” that appears in the lower left corner of Coastlines and Glyphs, an unconscious quotation from a lithograph the artist had made years earlier. Isolated against a patch of white, the shutter-green bars of paint indeed look like a computational symbol—especially as they are placed so close to the “plus signs” formed by the acidic spaces between cool green patches.
And in Young Listeners, which began as a clash of warm and cool washes of gray, blue, olive, and red-purple, the gradual layering of more intense and opaque color gave ever more structure to the “landscape,” which now almost seems to depict a bending bather standing in a rocky stream. But the shape that now most vividly suggests the legs, back and bent torso of a woman was once a drawing of a piece of petrified wood, the drawing itself made on paper using a piece of charred wood retrieved from a fire. How did the rock become a woman—and where the “white mouse” James perceives at right come from? These are questions for which there are no answers.
Like James’s titles, which come to her only after a painting is finished, the significance of some of these pictorial elements is realized only much later, and after long contemplation of the finished work. Rooted in observation of places and things, in close looking, in deep study of nature, and in poetic reverie, Terrell James’s paintings are every bit as beautiful as is her spirit and as challenging as is her intellect. They are soothing, yes, and they are mystifying, too.