What If? The Art of Terrell James

by Surpik Angelini

Reflecting on the broad spectrum of Terrell James’s paintings, one notes that at different points in her artistic career the artist delves with questions that thrust her into uncharted territory, generating new constellations of pictorial language. Each piece in a given period of the artist’s work is formulated like a pictorial essay, with nuances and variations pertinent to the propositions she takes up.

Exploring potentially new visual language is akin to creative thinking in philosophy, which, according to Gilles Deleuze, “brings into being that which does not yet exist” adding, “there is no other work, all the rest is arbitrary, mere decoration”. In fact, Deleuze stresses that, “to think is to create- there is no other creation”. Similarly, in her visual essays, James immerses herself in a world of purely abstract elements: color, line and their infinite permutations, which are edited in a wide range of proposals, from the early white on white compositions to the saturated color fields of the last ten years.

Having developed her work from the seventies on, Terrell James belongs to a Postmodern generation of artists. Her work, however, maintains a dialogue with masters as diverse as Abstract Expressionist Modernists such as Arshile Gorky and William DeKooning, organic conceptual artists such as Joseph Beuys, and even late Expressionists like Julian Schnabel. It is a fact that Modernist and Postmodernist traits coexist in Terrell James’ work. One can say that her handling of “balanced compositions” seems in tandem with modernist principles, while her liberated adoption of a visual vocabulary that breaks with “styles” is a Postmodern attitude. In fact, her work bridges both modes rather successfully.

The abstract genre of Terrell James’s paintings is based on a distillation of organic processes and subliminal experiences grounded in nature. Though her creative process seems intimately linked to organic form and function, in art historical terms, James’s abstract paintings share more with musical composition and Kandinsky’s art than with the nature-based abstractions of artists like Mondrian and Klee.

Taking Deleuze’s notion of pure becoming as a framework to analyze James’s artistic process, one could sustain that the artist seems to create from a state of mind where she can trace pure perception in the present. In her being present, as Deleuze would see it, James acts “outside herself” from, what the philosopher calls the ‘In-Between’ space of becoming: a pre-semiotic space, a space/time preceding any signifying sign, something resembling the potential space psychologist Winnicott was known to observe in childhood’s early developmental stages before they learn to articulate language. In this space, perception is instinctive, intuitive, almost primal. James’ visual language, being purely sensorial and phenomenological is grounded in formless potential space. Thus, the artist’s paintings could be said to coagulate, dissolve, transmute essences experienced as primal perceptions. These essences, identified from Aristotle to the Native American Indian, underlie known natural elements such as water, air, fire, earth. Beyond James’ oeuvre’s formal coherence, we will find that each painting, with its own discourse, seems to delve deeply with a particular natural essence: liquid, atmospheric, earthly.

Like alchemical processes, colors and lines in the artist’s work, maintain a fluid relation with one another, never quite crystallizing into measurable, identifiable forms. Spatial atmospheres are exuded from the relative friction between juxtaposed concentrations of color, or they emanate from the play of blinding light and subtle shadows. Thus, space in James’ work is no longer quantifiable emptiness, but the residue of organic exchange between essences. It is as atmospheric as breath exhaled from the exchange of relative color tones.

Similarly, the element of line in James’s painting is also organic. It seems to flow automatically from the subconscious, a phenomena explored by surrealist painter Andre Masson in the early Twentieth century. James’ lines evoke natural emanations, yet at times they may be reduced to purely abstract gestures. Thus, in some instances they can bring to mind the essence of minerals (fissures, cracks, break lines), the nature of liquids (ripples, waves, drips), or the organic growth in plants, movement in animals, insects. In fact, though the artist herself speaks often of her inspiration based on elements in the landscape and living organisms, her gestural drawings are rarely representational. Instead, they are highly evocative. In her manner of making references, James never appeals to concrete memory. Quite opposite, she records the traces of real experiences through a subjective path that leads to deep intuition, an intuition that deals directly with the unknown. At every instance in her creative process she seems to ask, “What if?”

About intuition, Deleuze writes, “Bergson saw intuition not as an appeal to the ineffable, a participation in a feeling or a lived identification, but as a true method. This method sets out, firstly, to determine the conditions of problems, that is to say, to expose false problems or wrongly posed questions, and to discover the variables under which a given problem must be stated as such.” This idea of probing “true or false” questions is also key to reading James’ creative process.

Within her own established parameters, James proceeds to play with methodic consistency. Thus, since there is a method in her intuitive approach, one feels that the artist grapples with true or falsely stated problems, refining, purifying them in the process. This intimate deliberation is something the viewer is only granted a partial view, as James ponders the “right solution” for each problem. Detecting true from false reveals a highly trained mind, yet it does not mean that the artist seeks to follow an academic model: James’s painting is not academic, since the propositions underlying it challenge the very idea of existing canons.

In grappling nuances, the work engages transformative energy, which, in the end, renders a highly individuated form. In fact, Terrell James’ work embodies the very process of becoming. Thus, while she records spontaneous gestures of the hand or body combined with the subtle layering of colored surfaces, we can find the visible traces of transformation in her thoughtfully layered, weighed, edited decisions as she asks, “What if?” This sensitive balancing of pondered and deliberate acts with expressive gestures confirms Terrell James’s acrobatic poetics in that creative space heralded in recent years as the ‘In-Between’: a charged, fluid, liberating place to be and to ultimately become what is meant to be.

July 2013