Like the intricate, alluring trees she paints, Utah artist Janell James experiences seasons of change and growth. In her debut for this spring, the artist has branched out to a new medium by moving from her familiar oil and canvas to acrylic and Plexiglas. The transition is a natural extension of her studio practice, giving her landscape work a three-dimensional look by layering the trees she paints – but not the negative space – and then adding a glaze, which refracts light so it dances through her paintings the way sunshine plays in the leaves of trees.
Her desire to tease out an even greater multidimensional effect through her work brought her to Plexiglas. “I wanted to see more of those layers, and I had been trying how to create a painting where a viewer can see all of them from the very bottom to the top,” she says. She compares the process to assembling a puzzle because she has to figure out how much paint to put on the first layer of Plexiglas and add subsequent layers with just the right amount of detail to achieve a complete picture. The Plexiglas at the base has the most paint on it, and as she moves to the outer layers, an increasingly minimal amount of paint is applied. And therein lies one of the bigger challenges of working in this new medium, “As I move forward on each piece, I have to make sure I’m painting less and less,” she says. With as many as six Plexiglas layers in one piece, she has to construct the puzzle carefully and deliberately.
This approach remains true to James’ work as it builds a bridge between classical and contemporary art. She uses a technique known as reverse painting, which has been used as far back as the Middle Ages. An artist would paint a subject on the back side of glass and turn it over throughout the process to see how the finished product would look. James does this with each layer of Plexiglas, but also paints on all sides of the material.
The finished product is one she compares to stained glass or a kaleidoscope. The layers of Plexiglas reflect light in a way that adds depth and compels a person to keep looking at the picture because viewing it from different angles brings out new shapes and colors. “The work aims to tease, tantalize, tempt, and tap into the viewer’s imagination a little more because they can almost see everything that’s going on behind the scenes,” she says.
The end result is a more contemporary look than some of her previous paintings, and, for James, the work ultimately feels more playful, which is a new conversation she’s having with the viewer. “I feel that trees are very grounding, and that this series is a call to action to just take life less seriously, and to have fun and enjoy it. It is about looking into, as seen through these many layers, what is really important in life…looking into one’s self and always striving to become something more evolved: better humans etc. I think my trees are so reflective of the human condition in many ways, and also just provide the most simple reminder to breathe in, take it all in, and just be,” she says.
Much like the human condition, the experience is a constant work in progress. “I’m still trying to perfect this technique because I’m still exploring, having fun, getting to know it, and trying to master it – as if art can be mastered,” she says with a laugh. As she explores and plays with her budding new medium, the pieces are still distinct and easily recognized as work by Janell James because they capture the vibrant sense of awe and reverence felt by people when standing in nature surrounded by trees.
Janell James, Green Loft Co-Op gallery, 2834 E. Highland Drive, Salt Lake City, May 10-June 3. Opening reception May 13, Gallery Stroll reception May 20, both 6-9pm. 801-599-5363.
Dale Thompson has a B.A. in Liberal Arts from The Evergreen State College and an Masters degree in communications from Westminster College. Her writing career includes work for a local theatre, journalism in Park City, and freelance contributions for various nonprofit organizations.