In an era where nuance is prized least of all, for it does not translate well in 140 characters, something of a push back is being experienced in Essex. This is a place whose stereotypical portrayals are not a local, but a global joke. TV shows such as 'The Only Way is Essex', an obsessive focus on Essex's criminal underworld and its fictional portrayal in films such as 'The Rise of the Footsoldier' and 'Essex Boys', an acquisitive and philistine culture emerging from the decline of Ford in Dagenham, and the rise of the post-industrial financial and service industries of the 1980s and 1990s. The new City boys were presumed to be the bedrock of a home-owning, share-owning monoculture favouring the Conservative Party and, in more recent times, various political formations aiming for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. These are stereotypes where cash, brash, ruthless violence and empty promiscuity meld in a sticky, unpleasant cocktail. Yet the purpose of books such as 'Radical Essex' and more recent writings such as Gillian Darley's 'Excellent Essex' (2019) and Sarah Perry's 'Essex Girls' (2020), alongside the long-running investigations of Tim Burrows and Ken Worpole, have been to open out Essex as a much more complex, layered and contested space than a brief glance might suggest. The very contours of the place are fuzzy; no one really knows where Essex stops and London begins to the west, whereas in the empty, huge-skied mysteries of the south and east, the muddy coastline is in a losing push-me-pull-you battle with the North Sea and the River Thames. In hauntological times, of our mourning for lost futures that the modernist past promised but didn't deliver, Essex is very prominent. This can be seen in the long elegy to the wasted potential of Basildon, and the stubborn resilience of its small arts community in the film 'New Town Utopia' (directed by Christopher Ian Smith, 2017) to David Blandy's anthropogenic and psychogeographical investigations of Canvey Wick in the project 'The World After' of 2019. The emergence of a process of critical questioning and inquiry into the complex nature of Essex – and its multiple realities – have been stimulated and supported by a steadily growing ecology of artists, institutions, and places where art is produced, discussed and consumed. The practice of Elsa James emerges in part from this milieu, but has a much longer hinterland and adds a very specific patina to some of the issues at play in these polyphonic over-writings of Essex culture(s). It is the intersections between four thematic areas that give Elsa's work in the last few years such a strength. These pillars are class, gender, place and race, and the overlappings and dissonances between each of these factors in turn. The artist's mature work in the last six years combines varied dialogues between each of these aspects, sharpened with a critical and activist cutting edge. Whilst we will develop each of these themes in the analysis of the work, the roots of these issues can be found in the artist's upbringing in west London in the 1970s.
BLACKWOOD, J. 2021. Intersections in the art of Elsa James. Colchester: Firstsite. Hosted on OpenAIR [online]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.48526/rgu-wt-1358411