Merlin James Paintings of Buildings

Sikkema Jenkins & Co. | November 28, 2007 – January 12, 2008


Merlin James, "House and Tree," (2007). Acrylic on canvas, 25.875 × 26 in.. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

It is very easy and probably even comforting to think of Merlin James as a contrarian, and certainly many people do, but this lets you off the hook. The reason he has been pegged this way is because he is a highly articulate painter and writer who openly rejects the belief that painting is dead, and even has gone so far as to say that painting should not be included in exhibitions of works done in other mediums, such as video and photography. In his championing of non-mainstream artists such as William Nicholson and Jean Helion, James creates a space for his own painterly investigations that courts, but never becomes, kitsch or (like the critic Jed Perl) self-righteously reactionary. At the same time, instead of opting for a well-worn path that either acknowledges or willfully ignores painting’s demise, he has been willing to continually negotiate its perilous landscape without succumbing to the obvious pitfalls (inflated content, loaded themes, oil paint’s seductiveness, illustrating a theory or paradigm, making a faux painting using an ink jet printer, just to name a few). He is a post-avant-garde painter, which means he doesn’t subscribe to all the predictable formulas and formulaic possibilities sanctioned by both institutions and the marketplace. He has more in common with Groucho Marx, who didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him, than to Karl Marx, whose followers fuss mightily over the credentials one needs to gain admittance to the inner circle.
Dated between 1993 and 2007, with the majority completed in this millennium, these twenty-six modest-sized acrylic paintings of buildings make it clear that James is intent on having his work back up his defiance of received opinions of painting’s death. You could say that he is being unfashionable, but that would imply that you believe being fashionable counts for something. Moreover, James refuses to take refuge in eccentricity, comforting subject matter, or an eye-pleasing palette. This is as it should be, and the artist knows it. I call what he does tough-minded and blunt, with the result being one of the most intellectually challenging projects by a painter under fifty (James was born in Cardiff, England, in 1960). And, as his work repeatedly affirms, painting must engage the viewer’s mind and senses, not just his or her eyes. As Wallace Stevens said, “It must give pleasure.” James’ paintings certainly do that, though not in any of the ways that many have come to expect.

It was useful to see paintings from 1993 mixed in with ones done in the last few years, because the early paintings, usually of a side of a building done in one color, aren’t immediately striking. If anything, they are rather modest and plainspoken; a pared down, cropped view of an anonymous building occupies much of the composition, with only the barest indication of a nondescript landscape. The brushwork is workmanlike, the colors muted, and the dominant form simply a rectangular plane, with bands to indicate a landscape, and an irregular circle to evoke a rather too small window. There is something lonely and dreary about these early paintings, which do not hint at the resonance the artist will achieve in his subsequent paintings ostensibly about the same subject.

The chronology of paintings in this exhibition suggests that around 1995-1996, the buildings became, for James, metonyms for the physical thing we call a painting; both are human-made structures that contain (preserve, protect) something living, precious, necessary. And yet, like the artist’s often heavily worked paintings, these anonymous buildings do not instantly yield their contents to the passersby (viewer). And, echoing his subject matter, James’s paintings have survived the vicissitudes of time, which is the artist’s process; they are durable and vulnerable, covered and exposed. To his credit, the artist doesn’t make too big an issue out of this, as it could easily become formulaic. For him, the final outcome—the picture—is what counts.

If, as everyone knows, a painting was once thought of as a window that looked out onto another world, and that it was subsequently thought of as a wall on which paint was applied or a flat surface into which it was soaked, James’ paintings (weathered buildings) both subvert and invert these long-dominant tropes. His paintings are both visual and visceral, and their surface can be quite uneven, built up in one area, smoother in another. The painting isn’t a support for an image, but a palpable thing that absorbs a good deal of probative interventions. It is evident that the artist discovers the final outcome in the process of putting on, and taking away, the paint. Using acrylic, a water-based medium that dries quickly, presses him to decide rather quickly what stays and what is scraped away. In addition, he might make a hole (or what he calls a “negative collage”) in his paintings, integrating it into the composition so that one is not apt to notice it right away. In what is the strongest and largest painting in the exhibition, “House and Tree” (2007), James stacks three overlapping circular shapes and their seeming shadows. It was only after prolonged looking that I saw the topmost circular shape was an actual hole in the canvas and that it was supposedly casting a shadow, making fact and illusion inseparable, distinct, and contingent. James’ paintings don’t fit smoothly together. Rather, they embrace their parts (additions of canvas, hair, bits of paper, thin slats of wood) and flaws (holes). As in many of the other paintings in this exhibition, intellect and pleasure, seriousness and humor, are all bonded together.
For all the consistency of his subject matter, no two paintings are made the same way. In the more recent paintings, James built models of buildings out of the scraps of wood that had gathered in his studio. Thomas Gainsborough built models because he wanted to achieve a high level of verisimilitude, which isn’t of interest to James. In an earlier exhibition, the 19th century photographic guidebooks to Italy published by Alinari were the starting point. Seemingly, one of James’ intentions is to subvert the ideal of verisimilitude, photographic or otherwise, which dates back to 19th-century French academic painting.

In the largely turquoise blue “House, Horizon, Fences” (2007), the artist glued strips of wood to the painting’s surface. Pictorially, they function as physical lines (a fence, and a barrier), call attention to the physical nature of painting, and underscore the distance between here, where the viewer is standing, and there, where, on the hill, presumably far from the fence, sits a small, unexceptional farmhouse. The painting (a kind of building) contains a building that encloses life (lives), and in both cases, the most that we can know, contemplate, and speculate upon is the surface (or exterior) of this covered structure. In “Glass Door” (1998), James drags a dry brush of maroon red over a pebbled whitish ground to convey the doorframe. On the other side is a world that we can see and touch, but never inhabit. Isn’t a painting a physical world, a unique thing, which keeps everyone at arm’s length? However much we might wish otherwise, there is a gap between our existence and that of others that cannot ever be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. This, I think, is one of James’ central preoccupations. And yet, instead of becoming melodramatic, melancholic, cynical or ironic about it, James seems to accept that this state of isolation is both inevitable and inescapable. These paintings are intensely mournful and powerfully tender; they embody as well as depict the deep solitude and longing that haunts us all. In their restraint and intelligence James’s paintings achieve an expressiveness that is unrivaled by his contemporaries.

—John Yau

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John Yau

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