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James Howell,
The Santa Fe New Mexican September 8, 2000
Gray is the tone that diffuses all colors
By Ellen Berkovitch

Gray is a mood color, a color of tinges. If gray should imply anything so violent as a collision, that would be a collision of fog banks, sea foam meeting black water at a rim that is curved like water's surface.

It helps perhaps to think of gray as strata - for instance, the strata of rain clouds, suggesting in the mind's eye the thinness of vapor streaks and the invisible gravity that holds airplanes aloft (for where else but in a plane can you be eye level with clouds?).

Or you can try simplifying gray to a dichotomy Since gray is composed of white, black and umber, you might consider gray as a glass half-full or half-empty Add black to white, and you've intensified the hue Add white to black. and you've diluted it. As a spectral phenomenon gray is that tone that diffuses all colors of the spectrum equally.

For a writer to take off on such tangents is a form of amateur metaphysics You could indeed careen into the gray matter while looking at James Howell's gray paintings at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art.

Howell's paintings inspire restfulness As it turns out, they also communicate an exacting deliberation in the way they're composed and in the unseen yet weighty intellectual considerations that go into their construction.

In an essay, Data, Dicta and Dichotomies The Paintings of James Howell, writer Lilly Wei discusses Howell's execution of his gray paintings. The artist charts the ratio of black, white and umber as he applies bands of color onto a linen surface, Wei writes Those ratios in color theory are called values.

Interviewed by phone from his studio in New York, Howell said he bases the composition of his paintings in the poetical idea of light moving into shadow.

Trained as an architect, Howell at 64 said for the last 35 years he has used painting to explore issues of mass that typically correlate with three dimensions. "The kernel of my work is subtle movement from light at the top to darker at the bottom.

Howell emphasized that a "slight change" creates a gradient between a flat field and a curve - the curve referring to the conical form of a parabola, charting a graphic of complex space within the confines of the picture plane. "A curve comes when you're starting at the top and effecting this subtle change (from top to bottom). "I wanted a group of paintings that would be about this movement."

Howell said he has grounded his artistic practice in meditation, which he said led him to coin a Willie Nelson phrase describing his spare art-making process.

"The distance between nothing and more than is necessary is a little bit."

Howell paints by daylight in his New York City studio. A look at pictures (published in the September 1998 issue of Interior Design magazine) of the loft where Howell and his wife, Joy, reside reveals a space that could be construed as mystical or glacial depending on your point of view The building is a converted horse stable near the Hudson River, providing the artist a 100-foot-long gallery wall on which to view his works in progress.

You almost can picture the artist on an overcast New York afternoon eyeing the mutations of color wherever his eye happens to pause. The Howell family cat, unsurprisingly, is a gray tabby. Most of the loft furniture is white. They do own a vacuum cleaner.

How should a reader interpret such strict orthodoxy to a color that by definition corresponds to an effect of vision - a diffusion of color that is equal along the spectrum? "My life is a big experiment," Howell said, Referring to the apparent consistency between the concerns of his artwork and the control he exercises over the colors in his household, Howell remarked, "Anything that supports the direction I am taking in my work is an affirmation.

How did he come to be a gray fanatic to begin with? For one thing, he spent a dozen years in the San Juan Islands near Seattle, looking out over the San Juan straits of silvery water. "Gray seemed to be an understated background like water or clouds or winter," he said "I fell in love with it."

But for all that aura to his work, Howell said the paintings retain existences as concrete material objects. "I am making a physical thing I know there are conceptualists who feel art doesn't have to be physical but for me it has to live a physical life. "Nature is the world of physical things, and my art sinks and swims in that context"

You might find the galleries of Charlotte Jackson begin to look bluer and bluer as you contemplate Series Ten. You might suddenly call to mind that severe hero of Swedish movies, Max von Sydow, insisting on the rigor of the mind. Or you might find yourself feeling simply serene. Severity is not the point, Howell stressed. "My work is very soft. Softness is its continual presence.

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