(DIS)FIGURATION: A Conversation with Terrell James by Edward Snow

Edward Snow: It's interesting, sitting here with you, I suddenly find myself fascinated by the riddling quality of your titles - the way their verbal gestures towards narrative and figuration interact with the metamorphic character of the work, perhaps its abstractness, to produce metaphoric perceptions. This seems especially true of Parable for Cells. What about that title, what about the titles in general?

Terrell James: I feel something biological occuring in this picture - meiosis mitosis, cellular division, the sorts of things that I remember studying in biology class. There seems an organic connection between the main forms in the picture, the globes, while the smaller shape below looks like something pulling apart, splitting. It suggests some sort of amoeba reproducing itself, and my instinct was to make thisa very dense picture, physically: glaze upon glaze upon glaze. There are ways to enter it visually, but there are also compositional and painterly things that are blocking easy vision. See the dense wall of umber?

ES: And then there are those two brilliant touches of green, which in a sense change everything. They seem almost ecstatic. I sense the painterly rationale for them, but they seem to cut right across the thematic frame of the painting.

TJ: They alter the emotional tone, certainly. How do they work for you? One must shift, psychologically, in order to meet that color in the middle of the burned umber. I wanted it to be the most beautiful, the most enlivening of greens, appearing suddenly in a dull field where feeling seems so absent. And there are other things. In a way, the mark above the two globes - that brushstroke of emerald/turquoise green - could be a sort of crown. Or something hovering above the matter, that might be less like matter and more like an idea or an informing gestation of a code.

ES: So, now: "codes" in the context of "cells." And suddenly I'm aware of the pun in your title. Communication through walls and membranes, partition and parturition, biological determination and psychological need, life lived inside cells and life as the proliferation of cells: all sorts of ideas begin to form. But to stay with the title for a moment... You didn't call the painting "Lives of a Cell," you didn't even call it "Parable of a Cell," or Parable of Cells," but rather "Parable for Cells." Why that "for"?

TJ: Parable tells about matter, about life, death, duality, finitude and essence - terms which in the absence of the painting might seem like abstractions. For me a picture is part of another kind of system, another way of thinking altogether. And maybe it's a "making difficult," a way through to other meanings. That's not all it is, of course. A painting is also a very physical thing. But sometimes I do think of them as ideograms.

ES: Your response could imply that we are the "cells" this parable is "for." It's curious how one reads moods in, or into this work. I had never seen a "crown" in that green stroke. Now that you've named it as such - possibly as such - it produces new associations. The original perception is still there for me, but now other things as well, and I'm reminded of the difficult mix of feelings in Paul Klee's late work. But you've talked about cells and division, and you mentioned that this elongated shape over on the right is perhaps something in the process of dividing...

TJ: Or reproducing itself.

ES: Well, yes,the one also just simply being the other. As if that were the parable. It's interesting how the "cell" on the left side, the cell I could imagine a moment ago as a unified, single thing - not having reproduced itself and not subject to the pull of self-division - can read as a face, just like the moon. And one doesn't necessarily want this to happen - but you can't prevent it either. And when I let it half happen by assuming a kind of ambivalence about the image, just being open a little, a strange sadness begins to emanate from it. That face has a kind of spectral melancholy that's as hard to name as the feelings one gets from Klees' angels. But there, again, is the emerald brilliance of the brushwork over the main forms, lets say it's a "crown, which seems to bless that feeling and bestow on it a kind of grace. And so things keep growing more and more complicated, the longer I look at the work, and the more I permit its ambiguities. In addition to seeing entities that are splitting, dividing, pulling apart, which could be understood optimistically as growth and self-reproduction, there is also a feeling of separation and divorce and things dispersing, moving apart. All coherence gone. But then, I can also see four or five parts in the lighter shapes that seem trying to assemble - parts floating, drifting, that could so easily coalesce but can't quite or won't quite or haven't quite.

TJ: May never. May fall apart.

ES: No, in f act probably will not. What's happening instead is division. And I think the green brilliantly underscores those felings. As with the green mark farther down: it's beautiful, as you say, but we want our beauty to heal, and this slashes straight into the area where things seem splitting apart. But as you also say, cells do split, there is this deep, biological, inevitable, slow pulling apart of things. And then that wonderful green comes shooting in. One can feel the stroke of the brush.

TJ: And it's really a slashing-in, but also like a scream coming out. Like the oracle's voice coming from within and without the temple at the same time, immanent and transcendent. Both directions are there, both voices. I think the mark actually did come from outside to inside when I made it. But then I pulled it back out again, refined it. I think of it as a line of information, going both ways somehow.

ES: That helps clarify an aspect of your technique find interesting, but sometimes frustrating: the presence of bold, emotionally motivated strokes, posed against a secondary process intent on revising, refining, masking those initial choices, sometimes to the edge of nonexistence, with a hand - almost your "other" hand - working in such small increments that occasionally it can seem almost self-abnegating. But that's the critic in me talking; my spectator-self has kept on looking, and now the globe on the right has "anthropomorphized." It seems opposite its counterpart in so in many ways: faceless, fiercely kinetic. There's a sense of clenching, an attempt at turning: one suddenly sees arm, fist bicep, the mark of a strong counterclockwise torque. A sense of receding primordial will.

TJ: It exerts a pull, while the other turns a face toward the canvas. As if the one were spinning clock-wise, while the other twists back, looks the other way.

ES: Exactly. In f act there's something Goyaesque about that figure in contrast to the the Klee-likeness of the other. It has something to do with its massiveness, its granite-like...

TJ: Its struggle. There's a struggle.

ES: Whereas in the other there's a feeling of longing - lighter, more wistful, perhaps melancholy, but resigned and hopeful at the same tiine. One of the two globes or cells desires connection of some sort. But the other is struggling. It's quite fierce and self-absorbed in its aIIuvial struggling. And of course the "crown" positioned ambiguously, not exactly above either of them.

TJ: Although it favors the one floating towards us.

ES: And the longing or need one feels in that figure seems for ever not to be met, somehow. It seems quite beautiful to grace that need with a crown. Where again, the green stab seems related to other figure. So even the two green marks are in opposition to each other, in the same complex way that the two "figures" are in opposition to each other. And I must say that now, having told my stories about the painting and listened to yours, it has become, quite literally, a different painting for me. There's a certain perceptual process that needs to be triggered and given time to play. One needs to stand in front of these paintings a long time, so that the f igures and the figuration, the dis- figuration and all the ghost images can proliferate. They don't just happen immediately, and one can glance away for a moment and look back to find them gone.

TJ: For me there is secondary figuration even in the "space" of this painting. The work reads for me as a cave wall, a wall one meets far in the back of this possible figuration. The patches on either side frame a distance. A distance that in some sense we are inside.

ES: And so that "dense wall of umber," which a moment ago you spoke of as something hindering or blocking, has become a "cave wall," signifying a deep paleolithic envelopment. The painting's figure of struggle and muscular determination seems more at home, I might add, in the realm you just described than its companion figure, which seems rather lost.

TJ: Plaintive

ES: Plaintive, yes.

TJ: Needing something more.

ES: I'm reminded of the conclusion to one of Rilkes last poems, the "Elegy" dedicated to Marina Tsvetayeva: "Early on the gods learned / to simulate halves. We, drawn into the circle, / filled ourselves out to wholeness like the disc of the moon. / Even in the waning phase, even in the weeks of turning, / no one could ever help us to Fullness again, only / our own solitary course over the sleepless landscape." Speaking of simulation: what about this painting, The Masked Days? It seems to introduce a new term into your feeling for the canvas.

TJ: As with Parable for Cells and Shroud of Field and Stone, I wanted to create dryness, a painting that was less glazed. It's as if, again, there's a resistance to be met. But then, also "again," something more like the flatness of a cave wall or cave paintings. Perhaps the wall has been burned by ritual fires, and dirt and life, and someone chips, by accident, one corner and away comes an image. I like the way the pigment seems to hover, almost like the last light at the end of a day. The red is coming through the black.

ES: The layering here, the flicker of traces as things seem either to flake away from the surface or show through from deep behind, is complex but all of a piece. I feel as if in the grip of an innate resistance to abstraction, an "encoded" need to relate to the visual in terms of illusionary depth and figure. Yet the area of blue at the upper left belongs to a different order, almost imposed upon the painting. That's true whether you read it as "smear of periwinkle blue pigmen,t" or "allusion to Munch's The Scream." Does it have this incongruous alien quality for you too?

TJ: For me, that is the mask. Also, it's the surprise about the painting. It brings the piece to theater; in some way, the whole surface behaves as a theatrical curtain. But it's also still in and of the cave, and it's also less manufactured than a theatrical artifice. Maybe there's only just one feature that is man-made, after all, and that's the mask: how we impose figures of meaning onto abstraction, onto landscape, onto the stage.

ES: Do you have a sense of where this instinct comes from to, shall we say, mask things, or make things difficult to get to, or make your paintings about these layers of whatever has to be chipped away?

TJ: Maybe I have to work through my own psychology, or barriers, or my sense of myself as a self-conscious agent. It's not enough just to reproduce the landscape anymore. Years ago when I was living in a beautiful place I often went outside to paint directly from nature, though abstractly. I was using light, and I painted taking the moment and very much painting "just what I saw." Now I'm still painting what I see, directly, but I'm living the evolution of my own, singular, evolving self. For a long time, fifteen years, the way I've worked has been to make obvious, and then to obscure. Other artists are often curious about this revealing and then covering up and then revealing and covering up again. It's just what I do, I draw this line between making and obliterating and restoring, sometimes literally, and I jump back and forth across it. I don't seem to want the whole thing, I'm interested in fragments, clues. Much of my early work dealt with ruins, and although I could have drawn fully extant buildings, there seemed more information in the battered remains than in the whole objects. As a process, it's a good metaphor for the layering of our lives. You mentioned the notion of a palimpsest in an earlier conversation, the fragment of paper that's so valuable that it is reused over and over, with the result that there are numerous layers of messages that can be understood from it. Or think of the genetic codes and memories carried by the Snow Geese that bring them back to our part of the world year after year, millenium after millenium.

ES: Listening to you and your metaphors in the context of these tpaintings is endlessly suggestive; yet it seems to me that there's "something else" that makes your process even more interesting. You say that you start by making something obvious, and then obscuring it, perhaps leaving clues and bringing back some of what was there before. But the key for me is that the very process of obscuring and obliterating becomes figurative and engendering in its own right - in ways you're probably not aware of while you're working. That is, it's not just a matter of leaving traces, but of creating entirely new levels of figuration in the very vact of obliteration. I think of one of your earliest works, Premonition, where the furious, swirling obliteration of a charcoal line results in the figure of a cyclone or, better yet, a cocoon, suspended calmly by a thread in the most benign of sky-blue washes. Or one of your more recent paintings, where the dense, black negation of an unwanted shape triggers in me the perception of a post half-submerged in murky water. Suddenly, "abstract" painting begins to read as swampscape.

TJ: Well, maybe, but there's something in my nature that's very taken with, drawn to, decay. Mavbe it's the languid atmosphere of the Gulf. Things do tend to rot, then reveal an underside, or something important to me, in the stage of loss.

ES: I think it's you. I don't think it has anything to do with Houston or humidity.

TJ: No, it's my sense of loss, simply. Maybe I'm interested in recording or documenting it.

ES: Again, it's the "Parable for Cells." If the conscious thought is self-reproduction, there will be in addition the plangency of abandonment and division and dispersal. If the interest is in loss and the recordings - I started to say "recoding" - of loss, there will be a sense of things nascent. That's what I like about your work: not just the dialectic but its own inner complications. If it's loss there will be two ways of feeling about loss - resist it/ let it happen - and then at the same time there will be something within the loss, figuratively counteracting it: the complexities of pairings; the implications of an inner life, hidden and revealed.