The abstraction of the physical into the poetic
by Michael Petry
It might be argued that everything we see is already abstract. There is no realness to things we see, things exist of course, but what we call them, name them, how we speak of them, are abstract concepts about any realness there might be. We have almost no agreement on what those names mean, that is why translation is nearly impossible. Even when what we are trying to describe, say, an apple, a real apple as opposed to one painted by Lucas Cranach, the Elder, the word (apple) conjures into each person’s mind a different idea. The apple in my eye will most likely be different from the apple in the heads of others who might hear me vocalize it. My apple might be bright red, or even green, or yellow, or any shade in between. This state of affairs is complicated by the fact we cannot agree on what red is, for that also calls into mind the possibility of misunderstanding my red and yours. If your native tongue is Spanish you must instantly translate apple into manzana, or if you are French you will internally hear pomme, and a Finn will see an omena in their mind’s eye. If you are Chinese the very tone of my voice changes it’s meaning, and if you are a person who has never seen one, it might have no meaning for you at all. But there might be a real apple that I could take a bite out of, but its taste would be different for each of us.
Without getting too scientific, what we see, when we look, is the reflection of photons off of an object – not the object itself. In a way we never see anything real. We can feel realness, stroke it, finger it, flip it over in our hand, but that is generally frowned upon in a museum or gallery context. You break it you bought it, might be okay for plates in a shop, but a fingerprint on the surface of a painting is definitely a no-no. So if we cannot see the real form or colour of a thing, or understand what someone else means in the naming of a thing, and we are not allowed to touch it, how can we trust an artistic depict of it? Cranach has a naked Eve tenderly proffer a bright red apple to a fig-leafed Adam. While I know the depiction features the apple, a possibly real apple in his time, it really is the depiction of a creation myth (that most likely did not happen). The scene looks real but is in fact completely abstract.
If such a depiction is abstract, is it really any less abstract than say Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe? Again we see a naked woman, and clothed men, while they have on a lot more than a leaf, next to her is a spilt basket of fruit including very loosely painted cherries, and what surely must be apples. Their depiction is rather loose and they could be another type of fruit altogether. Cezanne also worked over and over again to make apples appear as real as possible in the most abstract way, a perfect brush stroke here, another dab there, strokes that do not resolve they simply mesh, they spin a web for our minds. Cezanne tricks us into believing that we really are seeing the apples (or their reflected photons) that he did, over a hundred years ago. I long to steal one from any wall I see those apples hanging on. Unlike Adam, I am sure I would never be tempted to take a bite – I want the whole thing. Yet these are very abstract depictions that Cranach might not even know how to read. Cranach might only see the individual brush strokes and assume these paintings are merely sketches for never finished works.
Which brings me to Terrell James and her Field Studies. She has made over 500 plein air works where she tries to put down exactly what she sees in terms of colour, some blue sky, the yellow of hay or dry grass, the red of an apple – but not its shape. She then takes these back to her studio where they inform her major works. They are not studies for paintings but a vast visual library for her to call upon, to use when she too makes a brush stroke as part of a composition that most people these days would call abstract. Cranach might see the base of a landscape in her work but wonder why it does not resolve into an apple grove.
Her paintings are not depictions of thing but are things. They might reference a landscape, or an emotion, or the colour of a barn, but they are not aiming to ape those real things, she is not try to copy them, reduce them from their three dimensional roundness to a two dimensional representation of them. She does not even try to replicate the colours of the things she sees in her paintings (that is the job of the Field Studies). James aims at creating new things that did not exist before, that are real and have only the colours that we see and the internal workings and structure of her marks, and the layers of them one on top of the other. The artist whose work I think might best be said to be her artistic father is Keith Vaughan. I love his landscapes as much as his nudes and those that are almost wholly abstract are the very best. I am not sure if she would agree or even if she has seen much of his work from the late 1950s when he was trying to capture the landscape near the Iowa State University (where he was teaching), but if not, she has certainly absorbed the fruits of his efforts. These works built on earlier ones he did of Greek, French and British landscapes.
Vaughan was trying to capture what he saw and in a way, his very abstract landscapes have freed subsequent artists, like James, to simply paint. Her work often has the look of a remembrance of the real, as if woken from a dream, as if she has had that image in her mind and she has fought to get it down on canvas, so that it becomes real. Struggle is perhaps the right word or maybe it is too strong because the paintings look effortless, but that is why, as an artist, I know there has been a real struggle in their creation. The dancer who spins on a single spot, or leaps into the air carelessly has done that thousands of times, and has broken down the steps over and over again (like the Field Studies). Flow comes when resistance has been worn away – look at a river bed, as James does and see how her paint flows freely around the frame, yet always comes together to form a whole. Some of her works are very big like Phalanx (84 x 216 cm, 2007) or Maritime Forrest (2009) a diptych where each piece is over 17 feet tall. Even her medium sized works like Miami (2011) are over 5 feet long, so she handles scale in her stride both large and small.
An unlikely influence on James is Henry Moore, not so much his works on paper but his large sculptures, and what she has taken by drawing from life. James has noted that Moore owned a small Turner watercolour and of course we can see how his skies and storms have washed over Moore as they have her. Moore illustrated a book of poems by W.H. Auden and said in the introduction that “Turner- whether on canvas or paper - can create almost measurable distances of space and air - air that you can draw, in which you can work out what the section through it would be. The space he creates is not emptiness; it is filled with ‘solid’ atmosphere.” Clearly Turner has influenced a vast number of abstract painters as so many of his greatest works are barely figurative at all. They press almost to the breaking point what people of his age could have seen as painting. Were Turner not already considered a great artist I am sure many would have responded to him as they did to the Impressionists - with derision. Ruskin infamously claimed that Whistler merely threw a paint pot in the face of the public, but time has shown Whistler the winner in the game of art history. Without Cezanne, Turner and Whistler painting would be a very different art form.
James, like Whistler, is fond of evocative titles. I, however, like looking at her paintings first, without knowing the titles, taking in the colours, shapes and gestures. The works wash over you and flood your mind and when you know the title, they seem to distil into her memory, not your own. Remembering the Poison Tree (2015) is very lush but has no colours that I have seen on trees, poisonous or not. After reading the title we have to regroup our ideas about what we are seeing. A beautiful pink hovers in the top right corner while bright deep blues pop out across the painting, and as with all good abstraction it has its own infrastructure. It just works, as does The Lost Boys (2009) whose title makes the viewer seek out a hint of Peter Pan, or Corey Haim in his cheap 1987 vampire thriller. There is a huge blue horizontal drip at the heart of the painting, which makes me think she was channelling the film as opposed to J M Barrie, either way it is a terrific work. William Blake’s illustrated poem A Poison Tree and Walter Clemons (born in Houston, Texas but lived and worked in New York) collection of short stories The Poison Tree, both have a bearing on James’ painting.
But other titles are more mysterious or at least poetic and vague, like Instigators (2009), Regiment (2014), or Panoply 1 (2012) which really is a very impressive display, all bright reds, greens and yellows, where the brushstrokes smudge up against each other and are then enhanced by strokes that look like line drawings. They pull the eye back and forth across the canvas, which looks as if at any moment all the colours will shift. Copernicus EDIT (2016) has a similar energy and while the image is totally resolved, it too, looks as if it might morph before our eyes. I think only works with such inner clarity can treat the eye and the mind in this way, like the very late Monet lilies. Where his lilies become almost abstract, the paintings are still legible as works made in a specific landscape. We have no idea of the landscapes that reside deep in James works, but we should be very happy that she has been there, and brought us back her view of them and changed them into real objects of poetry.