In this time of rapid environmental decline, visual depictions of landscape can become sites for critical positioning. Marcus James’s 2015 works encapsulate the disjuncture between a desire for pristine, solitary experiences in nature and the technological interventions that reveal this desire as pure fantasy. But rather than present a crass comment on this contradiction, James’s pieces offer a possibility outside of the binary constructed between “pure” nature and the “polluting” human effect. James’s landscape drawings demonstrate how a person’s experience of being in nature is a relational, iterative process, one that is neither free from cultural construction nor extant without it.
Named for the hills and mountains James hiked around Great Britain, the drawings depict spaces that are remote, austere, and difficult to access—all quintessential characteristics of places in which a supposedly natural experience can be had, which is to say places that feel removed from the strictures of culture, society, and technology. Such places are seen as offering reprieve from the overwhelming demands of human society, allowing people to get in touch with themselves again. The logic of this thinking necessitates a belief that both the person and the natural environment exist first as holistic states that are later shaped and marred by manufactured interventions; humans and nature are the raw materials that are distorted by culture and technology.
But while James’s landscapes acknowledge this basic idea, his process presents a more complicated premise. After hiking to each peak and producing quick line drawings of his surroundings, James returns to his studio to render each sketch with specific, precise marks that seem to emulate computer renderings. In Bwlch Coch (2015), the rich textures of the landscape are conveyed by hatches, crosses, and polygons that play across negative space to produce a sensation of depth while maintaining a flatness inherent to repetitive, pattern-like strokes. James’s work seems to portray disparate layers of affective experience, linking his time spent alone on mountainous peaks to a controlled lexicon of symbols and marks that seem to be made by machine; this produces a level of depth and detail that simultaneously describes the landscape while abstracting it. His process belies the idea of fluidity between an experience of the natural world and its expression, suggesting that a landscape is itself a cultural production.
While most of James’s landscapes are black-and-white, some of his works are rendered with an almost Fauvist color palette that seems to lend greater artificiality to each mark, like a printer with unbalanced color. But, as in Fauvism, the strangeness of the colors are a rejection of realism, and with it a rejection of the possibility of objective representation. James’s artistic interpretation is not shy about the influence of technology on its production, both as the visual production of a landscape and as a production of the idea of landscape. In Bidean Nam Bian (2015), a huge swath of empty space cuts through the colorful marks like the work of an errant eraser tool in Photoshop. Perhaps the content not rendered within this swath was forgotten or deemed uninteresting to James, as compared to the scrubby brush and rocky crags. What reads like a mistake in image-editing software demonstrates how contingently the environment is experienced, raising suspicions against the possibility of ever knowing land that is untouched by humans; an experience of that land reveals a human touch, a production of meaning that draws upon a technological experience.
James’s lush, precise renderings of landscapes are appealing in this moment of environmental crisis. They embrace the innately artificial relationship between human experience and the land. Each drawing admits limitations and imparts specificity; each shows that the human conception of the environment is always a technological one. By refusing to separate humanity and the creation of landscape, James’s drawings present a sense of responsibility to nature that ostensibly objective representations do not. His work posits a radical ethic that intertwines humankind, technology, and environment—one that demands a careful reflexivity from people toward all three components of this inextricable braid in order to achieve meaning.
Born in 1973, Marcus James was raised in the West Country of England by artistic parents who encouraged him to study life drawing from an early age. Marcus moved to London in 1993 and graduated from Central Saint Martins, a college of the University of the Arts London. He received an MA from the Royal College of Art, where he studied life drawing and anatomy in the morgue at the University Hospital. Marcus then worked on collaborations with the fashion houses Alexander McQueen, Chloe, Yves Saint Laurent, and Stella McCartney. He currently concentrates on fine-art projects for his upcoming exhibition, Transitions. A full collection of his newest screen prints can be seen at www.lyonandcampbell.com.