The Holes in Merlin James
THE HOLES IN MERLIN JAMES (Shades of Gray on the Richter Scale)
530 W 22nd Street
New York NY 10011
“I like the hole thing”, a visitor to the Merlin James exhibition was overheard saying to the artist at Brent Sikkema Gallery on opening night. James’s odd-ball little canvases are often pierced through, with varying degrees of restraint, exposing the wall behind (the gaping hole in the painted wall of A Courtyard), or intimating some dark presence (the discrete tear, reading almost as a painterly mark, in Goats in the Foro Traiano). “The whole thing“, James jested in response, “Why, thank you!”. A play with language, the discovery ofdouble entendre, self-deprecation thinly disguised as a bravura gesture, are as typical of the paintings as of their painter. And like the whole, the holes which are its part are redolent of multi-layeredness -much, indeed, as a hole literally cuts through and yet accentuates a surface.
As in Henry Moore, the apertures in Merlin James manage at once to be a functioning formal device and an invitation to psychological speculation. As a modernist strategy, the Jamesian hole acts as a kind of reverse collage. But James is hardly the new Fontana. His punctures, like indeed his collage elements, the hair and other stuff layered into the paint, are more suggestive than axiomatic. Another overheard viewer at the opening (another commentator upon the openings) poetically muttered how these pictures “are already damaged”, an insight which captures the essence of his project. For James wants his painting to relate to tradition, and yet he manages to invest it with a melancholy air, stranding it in the present. The held-back quality, the wistful imagery, the visible unease, the angst about expressivity, the critical self-consciousness of these pictures, all point to a difficult birth, as if by caesarian.
Merlin James was born in Wales in 1960. He is of the generation, though anything but the temperament, of the YBAs. Against the prevailing “dumb conceptualist” ethos, he is that exquisitely rare thing, an artist both cerebrally and emotionally invested. He is perhaps as well known on both sides of the Atlantic for his writings about art as he is for his own painting. He is read in the Burlington Magazine, Art in America, the Times Literary Supplement, and in catalogues devoted to the artists he has championed, who include Derain, Soutine, Helion, Sickert, Lowry, and – rarely, for him, a contemporary painter, Alex Katz. He is literally an Alex Katz “professor”, for in the first half of this year he held, as its first encumbent, the Alex Katz Chair in Painting endowed at Cooper Union by that School’s illustrious alumnus. The lecture coming from that residency, recently published by Cooper under the title, “Painting Per Se“, is a polemical plea for medium specificity, an argument for nuance and against a fashionable blurring of boundaries which leaves painting stranded as just another option within the bigger category of visual art. Noting, towards the end of his talk, how the muses “were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who was Memory”, he celebrates the fact that each art form had its own muse, that “there were already varieties – categories – at the very source of creativity”. He then muses with Merlinian wizardry as to why the arts are born of memory, how it is the job of art to commemorate, and to block the forgetting of eternal truths. “But also,” he continues, “I like to think that memory is the mother of the Muses because any form of creativity- any art form- requires a continual internalization of its own tradition, an ever-present consciousness of its past… Each painting contains the memory of painting.”
If painting contains the memory of itself, as memory lapses, plays its tricks, opens up lesions, and clouds over with nostalgia and other projections, the painter must creatively fill the holes that result. All the while, new forms generate new memories.
A recent memory for anyone in New York who follows art was that assault on painterly consciousness, the Gerhard Richter exhibition, which closed the Modern (which has embarked on several years of major renovations and decamped to Queens) ten days before James’s opened. To the casual observer it might seem that the younger painter is more a protégé of Richter’s than of Katz’s. Both Richter and James, after all, treat us to a painterly reworking each of a Milan landmark. The nonchalently smudged monochrome of Richter’s touristic snapshot image of Milan Cathedral recalls the quirky late works, taken from press clippings, by Walter Richard Sickert (a Jamesian hero) as Sandford Schwarz perceptively remarked in the pages of the New York Review of Books. While Richter famously reworks photography, James is more famous for transcribing old masters: he once exhibited fifty drawings after a Poussin at the National Museum of Wales propped against a wall opposite the original. It is all the more disconcerting, therefore, that he has adopted a set of vintage photographs as the source for all his images in his current body of work. These mid-ninteenth century records of artistic sites and historic landmarks in Italy are the product of Fratelli Alinari Fotografi Editori, a photographic agency founded in Florence in 1854 which provided the plates for many standard reference works of the following half-century.
Richter and James are both painters whose work is, at a fundamental level, about painting. But a contrast in attitude and affect could not be more pointed than it is between these two artists. Note how so many in James’s modern pantheon, from Sickert and Morandi to [William] Nicholson, [Gwen] John, and Alex Katz, are “painters’ painters”; they all figure in an almost unwritten, secret history-within-the-history of painting. His rapport with them could not be more opposite than Richter’s deconstructive alienation from the “greats” morbidly lampooned in his 48 Portraits, 1971-72, a series of copies of encyclopedia portraits. Cold, clever, formal, official Herr Richter is, surely, the anti-painting person’s painter. He was in deadly earnest when he announced, in 1966, that he preferred many amateur snapshots to the best painting by Cézanne. Richter images are about the impossibility of painting per se, even while revelling in painterly tricks. Having his cake and eating it. Richter indulged a fluxus-dada denigration of painting even while ingratiating the walls of the very bourgeoisie he sought to épate with his “capitalist realism”.
James’s choice of images, and more to the point, what he then does with them, and how the source images function subsequently, belongs to an entirely different order of aesthetic experience. Firstly, the photos are not chanced upon banalities; they are images treasured for their artistry. Alinari brothers, indeed, disemminated photographs as acutely conscious of “the memory of painting” as many a contemporaneous painting. For when photography was a new medium, with empty accounts in the memory bank, it borrowed from older image making media well into funds. Meanwhile, its technical presence forced the painterly heirs of painting to look afresh at nature, as if through a camera. Photography aped painting tradition just as the American nation-builders aped Tory Englishness.
James retains the melancholy of the deadpan image with an almost Chiricoesque intensity. But there is no tricksy approximation of sepia tones or painterly imitations of camera shake. Indeed, there is no explicit need for the viewer of his paintings to know that they are based on photographs, though to do so is to add a layer, not to peel one away. The photograph is the starting point in a construction of a painterly image calling for color, texture, gesture, stroke, puncture, collage, all to give affect to its achievement. Looking at an Alinari print is like looking through a camera oscura: a meaning-laden reduction. But rather than cruelly discarding the Alinari images once used, James gives them new life. It is surely telling, meanwhile, that now his images are so explicity not “from life”, but derived from the nature morte that is photography, they are more populated than ever, by people, camels, goats.
James paints as if his highest aim is to be a painters’ painter: his images are deliberately murky, obscure, strange, private, poetic, small, ambiguous- fragments shored against his ruin. His new show at Sikkema, however, betrays a newfound generosity towards medium and touch; there is still the intentional deadpan of acrylic, as he shuns the easy-won lushness of oil, and an affection for the artifice of art-school color. But, in the phrase of F.R.Leavis, an appropriate critic to cite in relation to a painter so concerned with medium specificity, he is “learning to be spontaneous”.
Maybe, at the end of the day, James and Richter are exercised by the same angst. But Richter’s solution is nihilism where James’s is empathy. Richter will only paint in quotation marks, yo-yo-ing from phoney abstraction to anal photo-realism, with a “Ho Ho” as he does so. James actually paints, all the while conscious of the probable absurdity of it, as if propounding an argument which he knows has a gaping hole in it, but animated by a conviction deeper than logic, a faith.
I had the privilege, some months ago, to join a private tour of the Richter with its curator, Robert Storr (who is not moving with Moma to Queens but is joining the faculty at NYU instead; a tremendous loss to the Modern). Anyhow, I couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly when Rob anounced that Richter’s turgid gray squiggles from the early 1970s, his aptly titled “Un-Paintings”, were in “dialogue” with the contemporaneous white abstractions of Robert Ryman. “Where’s Ryman’s half of the ‘dialogue’, Rob?” I should have heckled. One cannot dialogue in un-painting; un-painting is inherently solipsistic. Whereas one of the joys of Merlin James, I find, is its constant generosity towards the possibilities raised by all sorts of other painting. James’s reticence is about self-denial, not viewer-denial. The exquisite near-monochrome Windmill (White) 2001, indeed, brings Robert Ryman into an unlikely conversation with Rembrandt van Ryn, with Merlin James as interpreter.