3 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now: February James's excellent New York debut
By Roberta Smith
Sept. 1, 2021
February James’s excellent solo debut in New York gives you a lot to work with, starting with its title, “When Chickens Come Home to Roost.” It suggests that justice will ultimately be served, that evil always returns to the evildoer’s doorstep. That James — in her mid-40s and based in Los Angeles — is a Black self-taught painter who is showing mostly scaled-up faces of women of color adds resonance.
Her seemingly simple color-infused faces have aspects of both caricature and abstraction. With emphatically red lips and tinted eyelids that may recall James’s former job as a makeup artist, the women also evoke the techniques from Color Field stain-painting and the artifice of the portraits of the German Expressionists, the Fauves and Beauford Delaney. Given their simple means, they have a surprising emotional depth; their often-light-colored eyes, perhaps close to tears, are those of seers perhaps.
James’s oracular, Barbara Kruger-ish titles further the effect. “The Thing I Regret Most Are My Silences” is the show’s one full-length figure: a blonde wearing only underpants, perhaps confessing to her mirror. Another painting — of a woman turning skeptically toward us — answers with the warning “Your Silence Will Enfold You,” a paraphrase of the more dire “Your Silence Will Not Protect You,” a book of essays and poems by Audre Lorde. “Change Comes Upon Us Like a Change of Weather” seems right for the relative passivity of a serene and beautiful woman who resembles a 1930s starlet.
The show’s title is also that of an installation that is less original than the paintings and centers on a sizable wood chicken coop filled with all kinds of found chicken toys and figurines. But the wood is dotted with faint, ghostly sketches of James’s signature faces, which creates some new possibilities.