REVIEW OF SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO. | NOVEMBER 28, 2007 â JANUARY 12, 2008 FOR THE BROOKLYN RAIL BY JOHN YAU
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 paintingâs demise, he has been willing to continually negotiate its perilous landscape without succumbing to the obvious pitfalls (inflated content, loaded themes, oil paintâs 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 doesnât 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 didnât 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 paintingâs 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 viewerâs mind and senses, not just his or her eyes. As Wallace Stevens said, âIt must give pleasure.â Jamesâ paintings certainly do that, though not in any of the ways that many have come to expect.
REVIEW OF MERLIN JAMES: PAINTINGS OF BUILDINGS FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES BY KEN JOHNSON
MERLIN JAMES: âPAINTINGS OF BUILDINGSâ Rarely bigger than the front of a microwave oven, Merlin Jamesâs paintings may seem at first too slight to keep you in a gallery for long. This showâs 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 youâll 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 itâs bright and festive. Heâll 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.