Place and Transition in the Work of Terrell James

by Stephanie Buhmann

The work of Terrell James is steeped in landscape – not in a pictorial but in an emotive sense. Her abstract paintings and works on paper capture a private, internalized experience of nature. They draw on its vocabulary without trying to reflect it. There are no depictions of skyscapes, water or land and yet, each of James' compositions seems to render a unique place as it emanates a distinct atmosphere. They offer an impression of mood, a glimpse of the artist’s private resonance with her subject. It is an approach that is timeless and yet, honors a certain tradition of abstract painting. The oeuvres of Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler both come to mind, for example, as well as Frankenthaler’s statement from 1957: “If I am forced to associate, I think of my pictures as explosive landscapes, worlds, and distances held on a flat surface.”[1] James’ work also resonates with an observation by the scholar and artist Sidney Geist, who stated in 1961: "submerged beneath the public styles, schools, and theories of art, independent of isms and unamenable to criticism, is the private mind of the artist."[2] Geist, who devoted decades to researching the work of Constantin Brâncusi, knew that even though a work of art can appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers and therefore find multiple interpretations and different meanings, it will always remain a product of the artist’s personal contemplation.

So while pondering the “private mind” in the work of Terrell James, one must consider geography. Her roots in the diverse landscapes of Texas, ranging from the urban setting of Houston, where she resides, to the high desert of the Trans-Pecos in far Western Texas, which she has traveled many times, significantly inform her work. In addition, the riches of art that can be found and studied in Texas remain a meaningful reference. This especially applies to Cy Twombly, whose pavilion at the Menil Collection in Houston she frequently visits, as well as to the oeuvre of the Texan painter Forrest Bess. In fact, James has written about both these artists. Especially Bess, who heralded from Bay City, has taken much of her attention. In the 1980s, for example, James helped to collect extensive information on the artist for a larger project at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which aimed to save Texas art history for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution. While Texas has shaped large parts of James’ identity, her investigation of place defies regional ties.  In her work, place is not treated as a geographical concept, but rather as a symbolic one: it serves as an emotional and experiential anchor.

 This is reflected in one of James’ earlier sculptures, “Family” (1997), a group of thirteen small objects that could easily translate as stones. Once molded by hand before cast in bronze, each piece has shed a clear reference to a time and place. They faintly evoke some of Willem de Kooning’s small bronzes or Jackson Pollock’s painted terracotta sculptures in that they are manifestations of touch; they are handheld objects that capture the momentary physical exchange between medium and the artist’s hand. Meanwhile, James’ “Family” becomes symbolic for the concept of place, a specific ground made of earth and stone. The same is true for another group of small sculptures entitled “Vessels” (2014), which are made of clay from three different sites in North Carolina and Georgia. Rather than Carl Andre’s concept of sculpture as means to establish a place, James conceives sculpture here as something that can create the illusion of having been harvested from a specific locale. Her fascination with stones weaves through her oeuvre - at times literally, when she titles an exhibition “A Place for Two Stones”[3] or when naming an artwork “Ten Stones” (2012), for example. The latter, a series of ten monoprints, relate to Sigmar Polke’s abstracted photographs featuring macroscopic views of gold nuggets in that James ponders a similar subject in similar fashion: from multiple angles while veiling it in abstraction to preserve a sense of nature’s mystery.

In addition, the landmark publication Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and Africa, which was first printed by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1937, has served James as a point of reference in her interest in minerals and rock walls.[4] She ponders how the latter can serve as textured surfaces for applied marks, leading her to occasionally paint on site-specific walls that are often meant to be destroyed shortly thereafter. Above all, she is curious about a meeting of opposites. Whereas stones describe the more permanent elements that make up the foundation of a place, walls embody the notion of transience; their creation, existence and destruction are largely dependent on human interference with the material.

In general, James moves between contemplation of smaller elements to macroscopic concepts. Her compositions navigate between concrete details and vast spaces. She understands open terrains as both something ephemeral yet graspable. In her work, we find them transformed into fluent abstract forms that seem forever shifting. Through James, the viewer gets to witness how almost vaporous, translucent veils of color can solidify quickly, amounting to dense opaque masses. These transitions can be subtle and succinct, at once puzzling and rendered with confident clarity. To observe paintings, such as “Circadian Clock” (2016) or “Curtain” (2016) means to follow inherent mutations, tracing refined details as new relationships between elements continuously manifest. Not often can these compositions be taken in fully with a clear memory of them imprinted on the viewer’s mind. Instead, they appeal to our own experiences and just like these, remain vague in concrete detail but distinct in their impression of a fleeting moment.

While James’ works capture concepts of traceable transitions, her oeuvre reveals shifts as well.  Particularly in the past seven years, she has opened her compositions up to embrace discord. Whereas earlier works strove for overall harmony with little room for friction, James now allows for the fragmentation of elements to prevail. Furthermore, she skillfully forces areas of tension and resolve to co-exist.

This development goes back to 2009 when James embarked on a self-directed residency in Berlin for six months. It was an experience that had major impact on James’ work, some of which might be explained with the city’s visual characteristics. To this date, large areas formerly flattened by bombs and facades scarred by bullets can be found throughout the city, while many historic monuments dedicated to the Holocaust, buildings once used by the Nazis for unimaginable crimes, and fragments of the Wall formerly dividing Germany, are just some of the details that make up its unique fabric. These remnants and reminders of the past are embedded in a city otherwise striving for renewal, which seems constantly engaged in the process of restoring, rebuilding, building. It makes for an unusual rhythm that succeeds in holding a disjointed texture together, something that could also be said about James’ work. When James returned to Houston and moved back into her studio located in an industrial area near downtown where old railroad equipment and the detritus of disused warehouses remain, her paintings contained a new sense of tension and her palette allowed for dissonance. In “Eyeing the Door” (2010), for example, black has nearly swallowed half of the composition. What remains is a haze of grays and bright green accents that infiltrate in spare bursts like flashing lights. It is a work characteristic of her interest in stark contrasts at the time, in which she balances concrete forms with large voids. To James, the latter perhaps indicated the unknown as a newly found, infinite space of possibility.

Though marking a departure, the post-Berlin works remained dedicated to James’ concept of transition as something that be captured as a visual phenomenon. However, in the large horizontal painting “Chase” (2010) it also describes the structural core as a grey expanse is interrupted by delicate gestural marks. Almost blending into the background, these guide us deeper into the composition. Only on the upper edge, in particular on the right, do we find outlined forms. They are rendered in black but embedded in color, vibrant shades of turquoise and blue that stand out against the otherwise de-saturated composition. James is interested in the viewer's participation in her work, which she understands as navigating on two levels. She once stated: “there is the painting, then there is something that happens between the viewer and the painting: a sort of second painting."[5] This sentiment mirrors Marcel Duchamp’s perception that "the creative act is not performed by the artist alone."[6] In fact, it was in Houston in 1957 that Duchamp presented an idea at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts that can be easily applied to James: "the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”[7]

If one thinks of James' work as an expression of her internalized experience of something concrete, which is meant to be completed through the projection of something private and internal by each viewer, it can be described as a bridge between the inner landscapes of both artist and audience. In that it manifests as a point of connection, which according to geometric definition embodies the notion of a unique location or place.

This point of connection springs from an artistic process rooted in intuition. Each time James approaches an empty surface, be it canvas, paper, wood or wall, she lets herself be guided by her hand, the materials, the moment. She works intuitively without trying to let her mind edit the process step-by-step, allowing accidents to become discoveries. In that she joins Twombly, about whom James wrote something in 2005 that now rings truer in relation to her own work than ever: “As a painter, I look first at a painting as painting, a way of making marks and meaning on a (usually) flat, prepared surface. In Twombly's works, I see a broad variety of gestures and marks, sensual traces, deliberate references and incidental meanings. I also see inconsistencies, fragments, suggestions of stories and great, great beauty.”[8] James’ appreciation for variety in gesture and mark-making is reflected in both “The Good Hunt” (2015) and “Territories” (2016). The interplay of vividly brushed paint and delicately applied lines, as well as of translucent and opaque layers, makes for dense information. However, not unlike a topographical map or an aerial view of a faceted terrain, these two compositions succeed in containing enough structure to remain whole. Color aids in establishing an overall rhythm and a sense of dynamic movement emerges, balancing the various elements, lines, gestures, and volumes.

August 2016

[1] Cited in: John Elderfield, Helen Frankenthaler, New York: Happy N. Abrams, 1989, p. 99

[2] Sidney Geist, The Private Myth, exhibition catalogue, New York: The Tanager Gallery, 1961

[3] Jason McCoy Gallery, New York: Terrell James: Place for Two Stones, September 6 - October 13, 2007

[4] Frobenius, Leo and Douglas C. Fox, Prehistoric rock pictures in Europe and Africa, from material in the   archives of the Research Institute for the Morphology of Civilization, Frankfurt am Main, New    York: The Museum of Modern Art and Frankfurt: Universität Frankfurt am Main, 1937

[5] Cited in: Alison de Lima Greene, From Texas: 150 Works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, New York: Abrams, 2000, p. 144

[6] Marcel Duchamp, The Creative Act, paper presented at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts in Houston, Texas, April 1957

[7] Ibid.

[8] Terrell James, Heroic and Painterly: an Artist's Thoughts on Cy Twombly, Houston Chronicle, May 27, 2005