Terrell James; acres homes without donkey

by Nora Seton

When I arrive at Terrell James’s studio, the door to a wooded lawn lies open and two dogs are flopped in a sunny patch on the floor. James has moved from downtown Houston to a slow green suburb. The silence is profound.

Half a dozen very large unfinished paintings sweep across the wall or perch on easels. Long, tall, square - each canvas rhythmic with a unique range of colors. At a quick glance, one has the sense that Terrell James witnessed the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago - the instant that density exploded into matter - and resolved to record it, canvas after canvas, in a series of fractal images.

She has been compared to Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell, pioneers in Abstract expressionism and Color Field painting. They, too, were driven by emotive color exploration and paint flung, smeared and sliced across a canvas. They, too, pursued large-scale images and multiple panels. They, too, have cited the seminal influence of Cezanne. But James has created her own space on the timeline. She has removed compositional focus; a viewer’s eyes must travel everywhere. And she is less interested in immediacy than contemplation. Slow down. Think. There is less emotional violence, and instead a kind of intellectual restraint.

At the moment, James is staring with snipers’ eyes at one painting propped up on an easel. It has a muted “dusky eggplant avocado” palette.

“I’m troubled by this mauve-y patch in the center,” she says. Her voice is soft and analytical. She is dwarfed by her canvases, and completely at home with the monumentalism that exploded with The New York School. She has painted on ladders and across barns walls and created virtual waterfalls in lofty spaces.

James considers the mauve patch from several locations, stepping over dogs, standing on a chair, nose to nose, all the while holding a long-handled round bristle brush in her hand like a weapon. We sit to talk, and her eyes flash repeatedly, unconsciously toward The Problem. Finally, she jumps up, digs through bins of paints and squeezes a glob of chromium oxide green onto her palette. She covers the mauve, mostly, leaving a ghostly trace of it behind. James’s paintings are full of ghosts.

The change to the painting as a whole is swift and magical.

James nods, smiling. “You see? It’s breathy now.”

This is a more accurate a diagnosis than one might suspect. An airiness now circulates across the surface of the canvas. Much has been written about color. Color is light, it is feeling, it is form, it is beauty. With James, color is alive. One color fills the lungs of another color. This two-dimensional canvas has a pulse.

“My work is about color,” James says. “I started painting with oil paints as a ten year old. I knew how to mix color intuitively. When people tried to teach me color theory, I felt like my third eye shut.”

Her genius for inhaling the colors around her and allowing them to exhale on a canvas is striking. After a sabbatical in Berlin, she painted a series of pieces bathed in innumerable grays, ignited by marks of green, blue and orange. After a residency in Montauk, she created a succession of tall dark paintings saturated with stunning deep blues and reds. During a residency in China, where red is categorically Good for luck and white is categorically Bad, she experimented with her palette to reflect the inherent constrictions of another culture.

Indeed, James’s color virtuosity sets her apart. One has the sense that James has even discovered new colors, that she has created new hues with new opposites, that her color wheel is not your grandmother’s color wheel.

“Sometimes I just wake up needing to see a certain color.”

She evidently wanted to see red one morning when she embarked on a large painting that is currently mounted by the studio door. In an earlier version, the canvas was filled with light and fanciful patches of cadmium red light, rose grey, alizarin crimson, and magenta. Today, it is layered, almost hunkered down with dark shadows. It is another painting entirely, filled with “burnt orange mixed with cadmium red deep, and a very rich, costly, poisonous red.” Rigorous sinewy marks hang in a Milky Way of gauzy blues and gray-green. Unpainted space has diminished. It is slightly menacing and atmospheric.

“The brush leads the mind,” James says. “Not the other way around.” Which suggests each painting is the successive, poetic outpouring of her entire being.

She enlists me to help her rotate the now less mauve-y painting 180 degrees. James regularly turns a painting upside-down to hunt for weaknesses. She takes photos on her cellphone to examine it in miniature. She will tirelessly cover and uncover colors. She will exhibit paintings horizontally in a vitrine instead of hung on a wall. She pokes and prods her work to test for ‘doneness.’

We stand back to contemplate the upside-down canvas. “Cezanne was so full of wonder and doubt,” she says. “It’s very reassuring.”


James: “There are no more battle lines drawn between representational art and non-representational art. But in abstract art, you have to compensate for the absence of the human figure. In abstract art, image is evoked rather than described.”

Broadly speaking, James’s paintings fall into the category of Gestural abstraction. Gestural art describes a process, just as Pollock’s ropey circles of dribbled paint show process, orHoffman’s huge muscular stains. Gestural art lends itself to movement. There is vigor in it. There is insistence.

A viewer of James’s paintings immediately senses that the game is on. The longer one looks, the more shapes and marks beguile the mind. One’s imagination leaps forward to make sense of purposeful dots, the curvature of a line, two symmetrical shapes like dragonfly wings, briskly delineated squares, a patch of white unpainted space - the whole canvas is fair game. There is great freedom for incidental discovery; James unleashes a viewer’s free association. “People say that they find things trying to come out of my paintings.”

Exhibition catalogs often show a solitary James contemplating one of her own paintings, her head tipped in thought. She does exactly that now, examining the mauve-reduced canvas.

“You need to be quiet with a painting,” James says. “Viewing is a process. Only after layers of time do you arrive at a wonderful, perplexing tipping of perception.”

She holds her brush loosely, and it bobs as she speaks. Time is critical to appreciating her work. “I want to slow time. I want the viewer to be suspended in a moment.”

I look across the broad wall of canvases in varied stages. Colors march. They dissolve. They provoke. They soothe. They throb. They twirl.

James’s paintings are born complex. They are syncopated and harmonious. They are not closed, watertight images. James creates what you see, but she gives you freedom to perceive.

“I love movies. In film, there are things you’re meant to see, and things you’re meant to hear, and they don’t need to be in sync with one another. That’s how life is. Usually I try to make it beautiful.” She adds mischievously, “Not always.”