James's characteristic visual combinations—juxtaposing forms from the idioms found in industry and nature—depict what he calls the “ecotone,” the transitional zone between the manufactured and the organic, which, in many ways, is the zone in which we live.
Before knowing James I'd rarely look twice at the artifacts of industry that dominate the landscape around Chicago and Detroit. While driving I-94 from Chicago to Detroit, I'd try to ignore the smokestacks, power lines, water tanks, lamp posts, boilers, cranes, chain link fences, warehouses and all such industrial paraphernalia that, it seemed to me, blighted the natural landscape.
But when I saw James light up with aesthetic delight over these same forms, when I saw his eyes widen upon discovering a row of huge industrial drums in varying states of decay, I realized he was experiencing the visual world differently than I was.
I realized that he has the ability to see form, color, lines, complexion, uncloaked from their layers of cultural meaning. I think that for him the information is first and foremost visual. But the cultural meaning behind the images also stimulates his creative impulses. He relishes visual connotations that are funny.
James is not the first artist to aestheticize industrial forms, an impulse taken up early on in Modernism, nor the first painter to paint from nature. Like his predecessors, James plays with the visual resonances between forms. For example, in his 2006 oil painting, East of Hobart, shown above, a metallic, curved industrial object that might be part of a rooftop air-conditioning mechanism is juxtaposed with shrubbery.
In suburban neighborhoods around Chicago, sometimes the shrubbery in front of the bungalows is obsessively shaped. It's as if the landscapers have tried to browbeat the natural shape of the bushes into a manufactured form. This is James’s milieu. He gets excited when the shrubbery gets obsessive, since it illustrates a craving to impose order on the messiness of natural forces.
Industrial forms are also an attempt to harness natural forces. Their strange shapes are the result of chemistry and physics. Engineers work out practical solutions to mechanical challenges, usually without regard for the aesthetic effects of their efforts. But the resulting industrial forms—like the shrubbery—are partly shaped by their organic provenance: industry must cooperate with the forces of nature.
The artifacts from this collaboration between engineering and Mother Nature are all around us. And since these manufactured objects live within the landscape, nature harnessed and nature un-harnessed sit side by side in our field of view. When we notice the commonalities between them, mundane forms become artistic. Many of James’s paintings illustrate this insight.