Anticipating much of today's painting 'revival', James's practice, evolving over the last two decades, is at once playful and somber, emotive and rigourous, physical and illusionistic. His paintings include elements of landscape, interior and abstraction; depictions of structures such as sea walls and piers; images of figures or anonymous buildings and houses; transcriptions of older art and antique photographs.
Mood is often melancholic or restless. Style and idiom are varied and unpredictable. Concerns with genre, convention and artifice have been a constant in James's work, as part of an interrogation of the language of painting and the nature of aesthetic experience.
While initially suggesting detachment, James's reserve and criticality diverge from much post- modernism in being a 'shield', protecting faculties of responsibility, compassion, empathy and expression. In recent years the work's disarming sexuality, and exploration of such emotive forms as the seascape or portrait, confirm a faith (however resolutely materialist) in the human capacity for feeling, meaning and expression.
THE NEW YORK TIMES Published: January 11, 2008 MERLIN JAMES: ‘PAINTINGS OF BUILDINGS’ Exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Company, 530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, NY
Rarely bigger than the front of a microwave oven, Merlin James’s paintings may seem at first too slight to keep you in a gallery for long. This show’s 26 semi-abstract paintings of houses and buildings, dating from 1993 to 2007, may resemble dutiful exercises made under the tutelage of an old-fashioned British formalist. (Mr. James, born in 1960, is British.) Look closer, however, and you’ll be hooked.
Mr. James is not a finicky representational painter. Following painters like Matisse and Klee, he simplifies his subjects into flat planes or matrices of gridded lines. Some pictures, like views of a Roman aqueduct or of a street corner that Edward Hopper might have painted, look as if they were copied from photographs.
But the interest lies less in what he paints than how, which is to say unpredictably. Here he drags paint over raw canvas; there he makes impasto dollops. The paint can be dry, wet, lumpy, opaque or translucent. Color is often muted and even muddy, but sometimes it’s bright and festive. He’ll zero in on something like a tree and create complicated, oddly colored textures. Sometimes he glues thin sticks to the canvas to create fences and porches. Sometimes he cuts small holes into the canvas to represent doors or windows and, in so doing, calls attention to the physical fact of the canvas. (Above, his “House and Tree,” from 2007.)
Mr. James may be riffing postmodern style on Modernist conventions, but it is his almost autistic absorption in the material and sensory facts that captivates. You find yourself poring over his surfaces with the perceptual alertness of a Zen student. His paintings are also infectiously moody. There’s a mournful, nostalgic feeling about them, as though in all those images of buildings and houses he were searching for a home.