Until January 21
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Merlin James’s painting, “Flower Piece” (2001), is almost a manifesto of a will to evade categorization. It hangs in a show spanning twenty years of his work at Sikkema Jenkins, his fourth with these dealers. At first it looks like a dashed-off, intimate still-life of a few flowers in a vase, a subject that epitomizes slightness, ephemerality, and thanks to Manet, poignancy. But framing the composition are cautiously irregular rectangular strips of red, yellow, blue that—albeit obstinately not in their primary states—personify purist abstraction. The flowers flutter between epochs. It is a painting that simultaneously says yes and no to modernism.
Mr. James is an oxymoronist: Everything he touches bristles with meaningful contradiction. You could say, for instance, that his work has dashed-off deliberation. That’s pretty much the hallmark of a show that, typically of this artist, looks like a one-man group exhibition. Not that he lacks for consistent touch and attitude, but his images are provocatively all over the place in terms of reference, period, genre: There are erotic nudes, turbulent seascapes, ruins, interiors. Erudite nods to tradition and the old-masters abound, but he doesn’t look in the least traditionalist: The paint is dry, pasty, sometimes even murky acrylic, the palette tortuously muted, the canvas punched through with holes, the surfaces textured with alien materials like hair and sticks.
Anything but safe and loveable, his is a difficult, high-minded art about art. And yet, the work has a quirky, whimsical personality. The paintings are “anxious objects” in the sense (coined by Harold Rosenberg) of being self-conscious about the problematics of where they belong, critically and historically. But free of existentialist expressionism, their angst is affable. Despite a certain nonchalence, he is invested in the process of making.
This could sound like Jasper Johns, but with Mr. James there is never the sense of an official, “important” statement about art; instead, the images almost deliberately consign themselves to critical margins. The punctured and distressed pictures come “ready damaged,” with the oddball charm of thrift store finds. In this sense, they share something of the anti-painting rhetoric of many contemporaries who paint “despite” painting— the Belgian, Luc Tuymans, for instance, with his washed-out, one sitting paintings after photographs.
Mr. James taps a similar ennui to Mr. Tuymans in “Room” (1990), a near-grisaille painted in sepia on white. The spare period interior depicts just a mirror, stepladder and lightbulb, and a sense of corridor spied through the open door. But the slighly naïve handling with the hint of mystery of the open door give the work a poetry you rarely get in the heavy handed nihilism of Mr. Tuymans, with his more deliberate drama. Instead, the image looks like Van Gogh’s room, only painted by Sickert in a drab, poignant tonalism and matter of fact touch.
Sickert is one of a number of historic figures about whom Mr. James has written criticism. Others include Morandi, Derain, William Nicholson, Gwen John, Soutine, Jean Hélion, and—a rare contemporary—Alex Katz. What these disparate artists have in common is maverick status: At some crucial point in their careers they bucked the trend of avantgarde orthodoxy to reassert a sense of tradition, but in ways that retained the probing inventiveness of modernism. Mr. James’s polemics identify a quasi-masonic fraternity of painter’s painters. On the basis of the exquisitely quirky paintings in this show, he is himself worthy of their ranks.
“Painting Per Se”, a lecture he gave as the first Alex Katz Chair in Painting at Cooper Union published by that institution in 2002, is a polemical plea for the specificness of painting and against a fashionable blurring of boundaries which leaves painting stranded as just another option within the bigger category of visual art, at the expense of nuance. The muses were the daughters of Mnemosyne (Memory) and each art form had its own muse, notes Mr. James, which means “there were already varieties – categories – at the very source of creativity”. The job of art, to the ancients, was 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.”
The survey at Sikkema Jenkins allows some overview of Mr. James’s development, but in a way it also doesn’t precisely because throughout the work there seems to be so much memory of other paintings, both his own and those within the broad history of easel painting. The selection is more a meeting of early and recent canvases than an overview, and includes canvases on which he has worked, ostensibly, for the whole period, like “Brown Girl” (1988-2003). The luminous figure against a lugubrious ground (which gives the picture its color name) has a doll-like quality that recalls the late portraits of another of Mr. James’s hero-mavericks, L.S.Lowry, the popular, anti-academic painter most famous for industrial landscapes.
Still, there is a change in tempo in his work, a loosening up. He sticks by acrylic, which perversely he prefers to oil because it is less generous, elastic, inherently lush. When it occurs in his work, Mr. James makes painterliness seem like a guilty pleasure. But he has found in a recent erotic painting, “Sex” (2004) a way to convey the orgiastic qualities even of acrylic.
“Waves and Rocks,” (2004-05) which doffs its cap to Courbet and Constable, manages to show Mr. James both at his most diffident and invested. It has the kind of intense blandness of de Chirico and “pittura metafisica” (apart from the hint of a vessel in the middle distance, it is depopulated) but at the same time the scumbling and impasto are atmospherically convincing and empathetic. At one and the same time, Mr. James seems to be making a dry, fusty painting of a painting of the sea, and to shiver as he paints it.