Desire Lines at UMOCA: Janell James

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The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art’s (UMOCA) Main Gallery exhibition, Desire Lines, went up on Jan. 26. The show explores representations of the erosion that living beings exact onto the landscape via creating pathways. Of 15 total, Desire Lines features three local artists, Jane Christensen, Janell James and Kelly Larsen, who discuss their participation in the show.


Janell James

SLUG: Please tell us some background about you as an artist and your present artistic practice.
Janell James: I was classically trained at the Bay Area Artists Atelier in San Francisco and then studied in Paris. This way of learning is very tight and technical, and helped me to understand draftsmanship, line, form and light. I knew early on that my personality wouldn’t last long in the classical realism style and what I really wanted was to loosen up my artistic approach. This is when I found the Helper School in Utah, taught by professors from the University of Utah, Paul Davis and David Dornan. Davis and Dornan were great masters at teaching me how to loosen up through various mark-making and random techniques that really helped me evolve as an artist. Twelve years of dedicated study to my craft and continual willingness to learn and try new things is what has helped my work evolve into something with a very unique and original voice.

SLUG: How does your work in the show represent the landscape?
James: Traditionally, landscape art has wanted to connect us back to nature, and I try to do this in a way that combines multiple styles, including traditional, modernism and contemporary art, so that there is a little bit of something for everyone. I mainly paint trees with a composition that allows them to move beyond their borders into the room … My work on acrylic will at first appear to the viewer as a 2-D painting. People are always surprised when they walk up on the work and see the added depth and dimension that was not initially obvious …We relate to nature in the same way. When we are physically in nature, we begin to notice the subtleties and deeper beauty.

SLUG: Specifically regarding the definition of desire lines being paths created by human- or animal-footfall traffic, how does your work respond to that idea?
James: My goal has always been to bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary art through my work. This is my path if you will … through the past and its wealth of tradition into the present, where I can explore those ideas through a contemporary vernacular, eventually having found my own line.

Janell James. Photo courtesy of the Artist.
Janell James. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

SLUG: What mediums do you employ for your pieces? Why did you choose them?
James: Acrylic plexiglass and acrylic paint. I chose them because they are, in many ways, the polar opposite of traditional mediums—a way to take very complex, age-old master’s techniques like reverse painting and the glazing and layering of oil paints, exploding them onto modern mediums that speak more to current times.

SLUG: What challenges did you face in creating your work for this show, and how did you respond to them?
James: When I was first approached to be a part of Desire Lines, I was thrilled and honored. Realizing I currently have six exhibitions on the books between now and May, you might say I created another puzzle to solve. They say we aren’t given more than we can handle in life, and so far, I’m digging my heals in and enjoying every minute of it, along with some occasional scream therapy and a little dry white wine.

SLUG: Given the politicized state of the Utah landscape in light of Bears Ears National Monument and the conversations happening around the landscape, how might your work comment on or participate in that dialogue?
James: I’m not a political artist, but with the politicized state of the landscape in Utah, it’s been weighing on my mind and is finding it’s way into my work in small ways. One of my latest paintings is titled “Sacred,” and it is of a Southern Utah Juniper tree … The age alone of some of those trees amazes me. Another recent painting is titled “We Stand Together.” Both of these works were finished during the week of the Bears Ears protest at the State Capitol, which I attended. My heart was in my throat while I was there standing with people who shared the same passion, hopes and ideas. The making and titles of those works are ways of marking significant moments for me, and hopefully, they will spark a bigger dialogue about what inspired them.

SLUG: Besides Desire Lines, how may people see/find your work, whether online, in person or otherwise?
James: I’m represented by four galleries nationally with Trove Gallery in Park City, Utah; Rare Gallery in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Terakedis Fine Art in Billings, Montana; and Zarks Gallery in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. I have recently been contacted by galleries interested in my work in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., with a growing national presence. I have a strong online presence as well on Facebook, Janell James Artist; on Instagram and Twitter as @janelljamesartist. Including three museum shows, a feature gallery opening, a group exhibition I co-curated/facilitated with Donna Poulton about Helper Artists and one art fair between now and May, I continue to have a strong regional, exhibition, gallery and museum presence. Upcoming exhibitions: Finch Lane Gallery is currently exhibiting Square One: Helper Artists of Utah, Jan. 12–Feb. 23. Trove Gallery in Park City is curating a feature exhibition of my work Feb. 23–March 9 with an opening reception Feb. 23. At UMOCA, Desire Lines, runs  through May 26, having opened Jan. 26. C.M. Russell Exhibition and Auction, Great Falls, Montana, Feb. 15–March 15. UVU, Woodbury Art Museum, Spotlight Artist Janell James, May 10–July 14, Orem, Utah, opening May 15.


Desire Lines is at UMOCA (20 S. West Temple) through May 26. For more information, go to utahmoca.org.