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Jim Shirley: Cape Breton Apocalypse
Cape Breton Apocalypse 1981
Jim Shirley (James R. Shirley), who grew up with the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, moved to Nova Scotia in 1973 and made his home temporarily in Cape Breton. At this time, he began working with monotype printmaking and pinhole photography. His visionary portraits are a counter-statement to the continually absented black presence in Nova Scotia.
A figurative iconography based on frames-within-frames, mirror paradoxes, splitting, doubling, and time-lapse, has carried over to his production in Rankin Inlet since 1979. The artist’s engagement with photographic realism and photographic technologies of seeing is highly original, given his affinities with Baroque art, 19th-century photographic studies of bodies in motion, and Surrealism. A soft-focus illusionism, characteristic of pinhole photographs, inflects his otherwise painterly monotypes. With their sepia hues and pronounced chiaroscuro, many of his prints resemble old photographs of supernatural events, ‘registering the spirits of the dead’ with a verisimilitude comparable to the double-exposure prints of 19th century ‘spirit photographs’.
Shirley’s art is also distinguished by barely perceptible progressions from one developmental phase to the next; its defining feature seems to be the cyclic, repetitive returns that have come to be associated with the artistic expression of the black diaspora. With its recurrent themes and preoccupations with elsewhere, Jim Shirley’s work anticipates theories of black diaspora aesthetics, sharing the cultural memory of countless dislocations that predate his own movements across the continent.
In 1979 Jim Shirley moved to Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, where he currently teaches.
KB and from Jim Shirley Returns: the Art of James R. Shirley by I. Jenkner