Catalogue essay by Rober Seward, Emeritus professor of International Studies, Meiji Gakuin University, Tokyo Japan.
In the late 1890s Gertrude Jekyll, England's famous garden designer, photographed a worker in winter cutting and bundling up twigs for use as fuel. In Jekyll's photo, “Copse-cutter Faggoting Up,” the view is dark, hemmed in by a copse of trees. Tree-stem stubble litters the foreground. A curved brush cutter cleaves the top of a stump of sweet chestnut. The worker gathers an armful of underwood twigs.
Jane James here paints images of faggots. As James explains, faggots were tied in standardized units, the twig bundle secured by rope. Properly tied knots encompasses the wood.
Fag! Fucking faggot! Molly! Pansy!
In James's inimical style, these faggot-and-knot paintings are life-sized, and in looking at the paintings, we’re tempted to slip a twig from its bounds. Or we might untie the whole unit as the rope knots invite. You hear the twigs fall.
These paintings are, however, more than a realistic depiction of wood fuel. They partake of their own symbolism, and in a certain context the beauty of the wood and the carefully constructed knots belies their materiality as natural objects. There is menace that binds the images to a larger implication.
To any observer of sexual history, homophobia is a constant presence. The fear and rage exhibited toward gay men and lesbians, and now of transgender individuals, is the history of sexism, racism, and religious and legal prejudice. Obsessional prejudice sees gay men, in particular, as objects for elimination.
Through history the faggot bundle, the symbol of the “avenging flame,” condemned gay men to the ultimate penalty. And the knots? While knots are functional, they appear in religion and are of magical significance. They record and recall history, calculate, and bind us to vows.
On a freezing night in 1998, near Laramie, Wyoming, twenty-two-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten, tortured, and left to die. Shepard's two killers tied him to a fence. As I look at Jane James's knots,
I wonder, did the killers deign to tie a proper knot.
Are these paintings offending images? I think not. While the question of the image returns us to the object, what is it about Jane James's images that gives them such power? They serve, most importantly, to remind us of the continuing struggle for decency, for rights, for survival, for our lives in a world where homophobia remains. Let these faggot-and-knot paintings remind us that homophobia must not be the last acceptable prejudice.
Robert Seward lives in Cooperstown, New York, with his partner of forty years. They were married in 2011 when New York State provided equal rights for gay and lesbian couples to marry.