What If? The Art of Terrell James by Surpik Angelini

Reflecting on a broad spectrum of Terrell James’s paintings, one notes that at different points in her artistic career the artist delved with questions that thrusted 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 took 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 that “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 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.

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 tems, James’s abstract paintings share more with musical composition and Kandinsky’s art than with the nature based abstractions of Mondrian or Klee.

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 or organic conceptual artists such as Joseph Beuys, and even Postmodern Expressionists like Julian Schnabell. 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 one. In fact, her work bridges both modes rather successfully.

Some critics have compared James’s art to Cy Twombly’s. The artist herself has referred to Twombly as an important source of inspiration. Yet, I believe that one learns more from observing significant differences between the two creators’s productions than to readily admit their superficial similarities, specifically in James’s early work, where we find calligraphic markings, the use of a light palette of colors, a dominant field of blank space, etc.

Observing Twombly’s universe of signs, lines, grafitti, scribbled words and marks floating on a blank, empty field, one can state that his pictorial language appears to be hinged on literal events, happenings that occurr after language has been formulated and eventually dissolves fragmentarily into memory. The triggering elements used by Twombly suggest such things as sound, echo, resonance, sensations, mainly associated with words. Furthermore, the interaction between sound and silence, as in spoken language, seems to generate the grandiloquent space Twombly is known for. In fact, texts scribbled on his paintings tend to make certain works allusive to specific events, highlighting poetic moments in the artist’s romance with classical history. Thus, steeped in dramatic qualities, Twombly’s work seems to capture the elusive atmosphere that lingers after a performance or great event is over.

Contrasting Twombly’s fascination with the persistence of cultural memory, in James’s work, the past and the present flows in a continuum, the well known Bergsonian duration…Time and space in James’s painting is not yet been and, at the same time, not yet become. In other words, memory and representation seems to not have occurred yet in James’s canvases. In this respect, Deleuze states, “There must be a difference in kind between matter and memory, between pure perception and pure recollection, between the present and the past, as there is between the two lines previously distinguished. We have great difficulty in understanding a survival of the past in itself because we believe that the past is no longer, that it has ceased to be. We have thus confused Being with being present. Nevertheless, the present is not; rather, it is pure becoming, always outside itself. It is not, but it acts. Its proper element is not being but the active and the useful.” (pp55. “Memory as virtual coexistence” in Bergsonism by Gilles Deleuze, Zone Books, NY.1991)

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 preceeding any signifying sign, something resembling the potential space psychologist Winnicott was known to observe in children’s early developmental stages before they learn to articulate language. In this space, perception is instinctive, intuitive, almost primal.

Philosophically, the In- Between is a concept that is well described by Elizabeth Grosz in her book, Architecture from the Outside. Notwithstanding its recent appearance in literature, the In-Between is not exclusively a post structural concept. In fact, Grosz demonstrates that it had previously been discussed by Plato. Yet, only after Deleuze reveals its subtle implications, we are able to recognize its presence in non-representational creative processes. Thus, Grosz states, “The space of the In Between is that which is not a space. A space without boundaries of its own. which takes on and receives itself, its form from the outside. Which is not Its outside ( this would imply that it has a form) but whose form is outside of the identity, not just of an other (for that would reduce the In Between to the role of an object, not of space) but of others, whose relations of positivity define by default, the space that is constituted as In Between”

This diatribe on the In Between may strike us as being esoteric, yet, it is important to understand how the In-Between is both the space of becoming, while it is devoid of recognizable identity. In fact, it is the formless itself, an artistic concept put forth by art critic Yves Alain Bois in a seminal exhibition at the Musee Beaubourg in Paris, approximately a decade ago.

As mentioned before, James’s 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’s 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, identifyable 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’s work is no longer quantifyable 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’s lines evoke natural emanations, and at times, reduced to purely abstract gestures. In other instances they evoke the essence or minerals ( fissures, cracks, break lines), or the nature of liquids (ripples, waves, drips) or organic growth in plants, movement in animals, insects. The artist herself speaks often of her inspiration in landscape and living organisms, yet her gestural drawings are rarely representational, but highly evocative. In this sense, James’s drawing shares many common traits with Joseph Beuys.

Grasping essences in James’s artistic process also involves distinguishing not only spatial, but temporal and psychological conditions underlying it. As mentioned before, James’s process is opposed to Twombly’s whose spatial-temporal conditions are post semiotic, formulated as an after-thought, where fragments of memory appear before they vanish into oblivion.

Twombly uses recognizable signs and symbols. His calligraphy seems abstracted from actual writing. His visual elements are signifiers belonging to a semiotic system. Thus, even a drawn line seems to assert what a line is, or a splash of color looks like it was transported from some other context, a neutral grey ground alludes to a real backboard, etc. Twombly juxtaposes heterogenous pictorial elements in his canvases, as if collecting them in a mental collage from reminiscences or reflections, similar to the way John Cage would quote concrete sounds in musical compositions.

James’s language originates from a different set of variables. She does not deal with concrete memory. Quite opposite, she renders traces of pure subjectivity led by a deep intuition, an intuition that deals directly with the unknown. At every instance in her creative process she seems to be asking 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’s creative process. To find the kind of cacophony that distinguishes Twombly’s jarring compositions would be almost impossible in James’s work. Contrasting Twombly, James’s cohesive harmony joins elements of color, line, composition, even when proposing a "tour de force". To drive this point home, instead, in Twombly may use strident, dissonant colors over baroque frameworks, thriving on “bad” painting.

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, since James ponders the “right solution” for each problem.

Though her method might reveal a highly trained mind detecting true from false, it does not mean that the artist seeks to follow an academic model: James’s painting is not academic because the propositions underlying it challenge the very idea of existing canons. Grappling true from false, the work embodies transformative energy, which, in the end, renders a highly individuated form. As Elizabeth Grosz states it, “Individuation must be grasped as the becoming of the being and not as a model of the being which would exhaust its signification”( Grosz, pp.98)

What does it mean to embody a process of becoming? In James’s art there are visible traces of transformation, of thoughtfully layered, weighed, edited decsions as she asks What if? Her work records spontaneous gestures of the hand or body, as in Jackson Pollock’s expressionistic work. Her subtle layering of colored surfaces combined with expressive drawing is a pondered and deliberate act, even though it may look spontaneous.

In this sense, because James’s work is derived from an intuitive approach based on pure perception, we can say that it embodies feminist discourse. Even though today, gender issues do not concern many critics, it is interesting to note that James’s pictorial language in contrast with Twombly resonates with feminist qualities, in the way Julia Kristeva refers to presemiotic language, distinct from Lacan’s patriarchal models.

Some ten years ago, in a lively exchange with Luce Irigaray in Paris, the subject of gendered language came up. The Feminist philosopher challenged me to find clear examples of masculine and feminine processes in art. I remember trying in vain to force the issue, as I analyzed certain artworks, always concluding how futile it was to defend this concept in art, since artists adopt processes from their artistic training, without consciously making gendered choices. However, I believe, that in comparing Twombly’s to James’s creative process, one can clearly see the gendered discourse linguists like Irigaray and Kristeva would seek to illustrate their groundbreaking theories.

In this exercise, I delved philosophically into two artistic processes that seem to throw light into one another. It evolved like a lovely dialogue between two articulate practitioners of their craft. Ultimately, the issues that separate them are not as important as the fact that they present coherent creative processes worth pursuing as an adventure revealing deeper inroads in the human mind.