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James Howell, 2000

The paintings of James Howell abound in paradox. His present work, limited strictly to closely controlled gradients of the color gray, is nonetheless lively and luminous. Created by a process of mathematical precision and executed meticulously within carefully defined limits, the work fosters a sense of expansiveness. Howell comments that "limits reveal freedom and endless opportunity. I remember the first time I had this thought, I was looking at a scene of snow and fog. The view was simplified and the details were erased. Yet I experienced the whole richness."

In Series Ten, the larger project from which the work in this show is selected, Howell constructs paintings which consist of overlapping horizontal bands of gray that become gradually lighter as the eye travels from the bottom to the top of the piece, creating a "rhythmic upward movement toward lightness". At a distance the progression of separate elements is so subtle as to be invisible, and the paintings appear to "breathe". Howell says he likes the idea of "making a whole world of small differences, which in turn opens the door to infinity of mind". This world of small differences consists of a large number of works that represent an orderly exploration of the many possible combinations of titanium white, ivory black and raw umber (added to avoid the bluing that can occur in some combinations). Mixtures are calculated precisely according to mathematical principles that derive from the parabola, but Howell emphasizes that the work is not formulaic.

Howell characterizes the elements of Series Ten as "ruins". One way in which the work departs from formula is the occasional omission of a piece that would otherwise form the next step in the progression. Howell cites Owen Barfield's comment about the way we look at ruins: "The first man who looked at the ruin of a wall saw the true value of omission with its accompanying phenomenon of suggestion." The viewer may also be reminded of the I Ching, the Taoist book which explores the complete cycle of permutations of hexagrams based on the interplay of yin and yang, the philosophical principles that represent dichotomies (black and white, among many others) and the resolution of those opposites into a larger whole. Howell's work leaves out an occasional hexagram, allowing the viewer to "see" the missing piece in his or her own way.

Howell holds degrees in Literature and Architecture from Stanford University and studied at the Art Students League. He currently resides and works in New York in a loft whose gray tones and gray cat reflect his interest in exploring the subtle gradations of mid-tones. His work is represented in collections in the United States and Europe.

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