Born in California
Resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The self is constructed like an object through the conjunction of time, materials, and surroundings. At the point where these things meet, an idea can form and a person can become an individual. James Maurelle approaches his practice through the lens of musical composition. Comparing his work to jazz, he notes that “[t]he fluidity connecting mind, hand, and tools are based on the augmented triad which is the cornerstone of my work ethic.” Within his multi-faceted oeuvre are carefully coordinated responses to issues of time, exploration, improvisation, and the nuances of the Afra-Diasporic artist experience. The objects, films, and photographs differ in format, but stem from the same underlying principles: how does an artist show their thought process and its gradual transference into visual and physical states without being absorbed by the historical trend of white male conceptualism?
Underscored in much of his practice, the notion of creative labor is central to an understanding of Maurelle’s work. The idea of physical actions and spent time are visible in his wider oeuvre as axis points for a conversation on where conceptual impulses are transformed into art objects through force of will and effort. In a similar fashion, the concepts surrounding jazz composition and structure play a crucial role in how Maurelle’s life and practice unfurl. By exploring the world and improvising with what he finds, the artist is able to create new ways of communicating. Walking through a city, Maurelle chronicles a mundane task by taking pictures along the way. Photographic projects like Dailies (2010-13) catalog and archive the various visual stimuli the artist encounters. More concerned with visual information than formal staging, these photographs often appear in the square format of social media and make use of filters to increase/decrease saturation and add digital frames and vignetting. Spraypainted images of Harriet Tubman mingle with action figures and scrawled epitaphs of “ART IS DEAD…”, creating a melange of meanings. Acting as a visual diary, Maurelle asks us to string these points together into an ongoing narrative on personal experience. Each image becomes a phrase in the evolving score.
Mining the archive for content, Maurelle extracts video clips from larger sequences that he then manipulates through the use of sound replacement, speed reduction, and editing. In Langua Lesson (2015), a young Jean-Michel Basquiat is interviewed by a TV presenter for his work as SAMO. By editing the video to focus on the young graffiti writer (and his palpable boredom with the whole affair) and interjecting static, doubling, and other auditory glitches, Maurelle points toward the commodification and neutralization of Basquiat by the art world. In an effort to appear hip, the host mispronounces “SAMO” and then asks Basquiat if he’d ever consider writing a pronunciation guide under his tags. The comment does not seem intentionally malicious, but it points toward efforts by mainly white curators and critics to forcibly insert the Afra-Diasporic experience into the prevailing cultural norms and thereby strip it of relevance and nuance. Similarly, in julie trailes (2015), Julia Child bakes in black and white while a newsreel voiceover relates the British conquest of Africa in an explanatory tone. This pairing of a cooking video with an academically-neutralized history of atrocities allows Maurelle to highlight how dulled we have become to the dominant dialogue of white Western power.
In speaking about history, Maurelle also speaks about the passage of time and its effects. In his objects, the notion of work makes itself known by giving physical presence to the ever-ticking clock. Whereas videos rely on time to unfold, pieces like walking on my hands (2014) revel in the stored hours that make up their formation. Seemingly simple, the wooden plane has been dextrously worked and adorned by detritus that highlights immaculate areas wiped clean by the artist’s hand. Works like untitled (2014) refer again to historical time and intrinsic research as Maurelle references the ‘I AM A MAN’ signs from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker Strike while also calling attention to ideas of consumption and the disturbing racist naming conventions surrounding Brazil nuts in the United States. By calling on the viewer to make these connections and explore the ideas surrounding his pieces, Maurelle places his own practice in conversation with the receding past and the uncertain future.