“Part of the reason I’m interested in portraiture,” says the painter James Everett Stanley, “is that you can see life’s journey just in somebody’s face, in the weathering, in the eyes.” This is evident in one of his early paintings of his aging father. Observed from a low vantage point, his father, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana, appears strong and defiant but also worn by experience.
Age as an experience of transformation has long interested Stanley, who was a child of older parents. “I was getting out of the house and being independent when my parents were becoming more fragile,” he says. Much of his career as a painter has been spent charting the cycles of life as journeys that engage both landscape and mythology.
Stanley came to Provincetown in 2002 as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, where he met his wife, the poet Kirsten Andersen. He had been living in New York and was looking for a way out of the city after 9/11, the effects of which he observed up close. As an art handler, he waded through ash in destroyed buildings to recover corporate art collections.
The landscape of Provincetown provided a respite, and, when he returned to the city for an M.F.A. program at Columbia University, images of nature began to creep into his portraits. Figures wear homemade masks, improvised camouflage, and primitive militia-style gear; some are half submerged in ponds or standing by salt marshes.
Stanley describes the paintings as a “reaction to a political moment” filled with “never-ending wars and the rise of civic militia.” The violent undertones are tempered by his sensitivity of touch and with what Stanley describes as “an aspect of spiritualism.” Water becomes a transformative element in these paintings, evoking the spiritual through images of ablution and baptism.
His depictions of outdoorsy, semi-militant figures are the paintings of a young man — one stop on the journey of life. In one painting from this period, he will not let your foot slip, Stanley considers fatherhood; he paints his brother-in-law with his infant child in a carrier. It is a reflection on modern manhood, in which “the idea of being a caretaker,” says Stanley, “doesn’t take away from an idea of manhood.”
Stanley returned to the Cape in 2010, after he had become a father himself. Since then, he has been painting figures in natural settings that appear as collaged mashups. The Encounter, for example, depicts his daughter with a fox. The action takes place in a sunny forest, but the scene is cut up with visual interludes from other places and times of day: a red setting sun peeks through the background, a swath of water hovers above the fox.
Whereas his earlier paintings show Stanley constructing fixed and choreographed fictional worlds or capturing moments in time, these recent works forego such control. In them, there is a multifaceted sense of time, generations, perspectives, and “moments tainted with other memories.” They are laden with the experience of middle age.
Stanley paints the ambiguities of being “at the beginning of life’s journey” in Land of Fools, recently on view at Hirschl & Adler in New York as part of an exhibition of contemporary portraiture. Here he paints a young man he met playing pickup basketball in Provincetown. Stanley places him standing confidently on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, with the left side of the painting depicting a completely different place, perhaps the White Cedar Swamp.
The painting’s title adds an allegorical dimension by referencing the fool’s card in a tarot deck. His subject seems unconcerned about the cliff’s edge, and a rabbit adds what he calls “a modicum of innocence.” There is, Stanley says, “this looming threat,” which partly reflects the experience of parenthood and not being able to control everything that has to do with one’s children.
“What is innocence can also be a threat in some ways,” says Stanley. In his paintings, animals often occupy this symbolic territory — the fox in Encounter, a raven in a painting currently at GAA gallery in Provincetown.
He turns this idea on himself in a haunting self-portrait, Provincelands 1. Here he portrays himself standing in shallow water. The viewer sees the figure, cropped at the waist, as a reflection, the water transforming the darkly clothed man into a shadowy, obscured image. It’s a work that addresses how he is perceived as a large Black man, and considers the space he occupies, both physically and historically, within the landscape.
“I’m not small,” Stanley says, describing how people tend to make space for him when he’s “walking off the train at night or whatever,” despite the fact that his demeanor is modest and gentle. “My own body was always an adjustment to what my physicality implies,” he says.
Stanley has recently been exploring similar issues of identity and place in the local landscape.
“Even though I moved here as an adult, in some ways I’m represented here,” says Stanley, whose mother is a 13th-generation New Englander with ancestral roots extending to the Pilgrims. “What are we on the Cape?” he asks. “We have either generational families or recent immigrant families from the Caribbean, especially Jamaica.”
As part of his preparations for an upcoming exhibition at Hirschl & Adler in October, Stanley is researching the history of Black communities in New England and revisiting the artwork he grew up around. “If you think about Black America, you think urban first,” he says. That wasn’t Stanley’s experience: he grew up outside Boston, in Waltham, and wanted to be a wildlife biologist.
Black figurative painting is having a moment in the contemporary art world now. Stanley seems to be cutting out a unique space for himself, introducing Black figures into American landscape idioms while reflecting on how aging, mythology, innocence, and danger define our lives.
“I’m interested in using my own history and embracing the history of landscape paintings from here,” he says. “I’m interested in having the awkward conversation of being influenced by artists such as Winslow Homer.”