Terrell James: Rouffignac & Field Studies by Allen R. Gee

What I think occurs when one views Terrell James’ art is a new experience of looking. To an extent, influences can be found in her painting from the spontaneous abstract expressionism of Soutine, Matisse, Pollock, Twombly, or de Kooning. But this work invites us to imagine and explore at another level. It is not painting of hierarchial or imposed statements. This is art that exists in another way; its edge is at the moment of engagement.

When we look, there are gestures of light and nature that can be seen, and an organic quality, which illicits a likeness to landscape and geology without being depictive or illustrative. You might see the passage of water over rocks, a dry creek, depth of sky or the dramatic outline of a mesa. On the other hand, you can also find pronounced urban blocks or curved lines that suggest civilization’s etchings and tableaus. I have visited Terrell’s studio, where she has shown me small round clay sculptures that somehow find their way into the space on the canvas. She considers these shapes to be organic, or from within the body, as much as one’s own heart, liver, or kidney. These shapes are not meant to implicitly suggest forms or tell a familiar story, like the lines of de Kooning’s women, but to draw us inward. When this happens, looking and other acts, such as remembering or pondering, meld or occur simultaneously.

I asked Terrell once to speak about the use of color in these works. She told me that she intended for color to suggest feeling, that each color relates to all the other colors, conveying an emotional tone. Rothko once spoke of color in terms of illiciting the same experience for the viewer that he had when painting his works. But here you have the bright whites, stone grays, gold ochre, fleshy pinks, dull putty green, midnight blue black, and the light coming from all of it to bring the viewer to acts of imagining and dreaming about one’s own experiences. Color is never decorative here. I am thinking of decoration defined in terms of pattern, geometry, or repetition. Rather, there are relationships between the forms and colors that are not meant to prescribe, or to force the eye to interpret, but to lead the eye and viewer elsewhere.

If you squint, the dark and light values change. Notice how a swirling opalescent line creates a different border than a thin black line. Foreground and background aren’t employed as much, asking and allowing you to construct your own referential frames. All of these elements matter, so that at the very moment of looking, your eye can see beyond the field of the painting. The image continues in one’s imagination beyond the canvas, and each painting asks to be experienced, not in a single glance, but over time, physically and emotionally.

If you do not have the means of telling, then you have nothing. But to look at James’ art is to share a perceptual space and be moved. We gaze, time stops, the scale of the world changes. Look long enough, and there can be a sacred feeling, that of either joy or of mourning. The work is unique because we participate in, and therefore, complete each work. This does not depend upon criticality or textual reference; it accomplishes what early abstract expressionists like Krasner, Tomlin, Gorky, or Still were working toward. Here there is a new form of cultural engagement.