Thomas Demand at 303 Gallery and Merlin James at Sikkema Jenkins & Co
THOMAS DEMAND: Yellowcake
303 until December 22
525 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues, 212-255-1121
MERLIN JAMES: Paintings of Buildings
Sikkema Jenkins & Co until January 12
530 West 22nd, between 10th and 11th avenues, 212-929-2262
Merlin James and Thomas Demand – whose current solo shows face each other on West 22nd Street – might seem as different as two contemporary artists can be: One a poetic charmer, the other an austere, highly cerebral photo-conceptualist.
But a coincidence of means begs a comparison between shows of overtly contrastive mood and artworld temper. For both artists make their final images — small-scale easel paintings in acrylic in the case of Mr. James, a photographic installation in the case of Mr. Demand – from models of their own making. And both use buildings, though neither is concerned with architecture per se. The way models play a role in the precarious interchange of perceived reality and encouraged artifice constitute a specifically contemporary attitude towards subject matter.
Mr. Demand’s installation is titled “Yellowcake” after the colloquial term for the enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. His subject is the “Nigergate” affair that undermined a casus belli for the invasion of Iraq, when the authenticity of paperwork that was considered proof of Sadaam Hussein’s attempts to procure the minerals from Niger was brought into question and related to a robbery of stationery and seals from the embassy of Niger in Rome.
Mr. Demand’s modus operandi entails recreating physical places with paper models with considerable exactitude – though not disguising that they are indeed models. He then photographs in large format images with willfully bland, neutral, lighting. His procedure, in a way, is a pun on “documentary” as the models are made of paper, from which documents are often made. In this case, the politics of the situation adds a further spin to the artist’s habitual concern with the exchange between fact and artifice.
For Mr. Demand’s show, the 303 gallery has been painted an institutional gray, and the photographic tableau printed so that the depicted spaces are effectively life-sized. The Niger embassy is situated in a Fascist-era office building located between the Vatican and the 1930s Olympic Village. As befits a Thomas Demand project, it exudes non-descript generic modernism. The photographs, like the models and the source of inspiration, are at once elegant and austere. Mr. Demand is clearly influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher, the serial photographers of typologies of building structure, who taught at the Dusseldorf Academy where Mr. Demand studied sculpture. The C-print “Embassy II” (2007), for instance, mixes conceptual art’s matter-of-factness with consummate artistry in the way it crops the composition of a banister, the glimpse of hallway, and the entrance to the embassy premises. The image both services a sense of place, and, at the same time, creates a near-abstract arrangement of planes.
Other images depict the depopulated offices as they might have appeared on the day of the historically momentous robbery, with shots of the national flag hanging on the exterior balcony or in the lobby, and the disheveled desk from which the stationery was stolen. The images, however, only really start to become sinister when you know the backstory. Left to their own devices, they would simply be bland, in a cute, dinky way.
Unlike the central, causal relationship between final image and constructed model in Mr. Demand’s work, the relationship of model to painting in Merlin James is incidental and occluded. In fact, the viewer might only know that some of his paintings of buildings are modeled on the artist’s own dollhouse-like constructions from the gallery poster that shows the artist alongside a table of them in his studio. But what the viewer does pick up is a marked sense of artifice within the painted image, if not the source or the artist’s perception of it.
Mr. James’s exhibition is his third in New York in the last two years: He was the subject of a retrospective overview at Sikkema Jenkins in 2005, and earlier this year the New York Studio School presented his transcriptions of old master paintings, a show (organized by this critic) which also included work dating from the outset of his career. Even the present, thematically-focused show includes old work. An evident aversion to a concentration on new work is of a piece with the artist’s refined sense of slow deliberation, and of art that feeds on different pasts – the artist’s own, the medium’s, and, in this case, the lived-in weather-worn buildings themselves.
Mr. James’s paintings are loveable in their quirkiness, but nonetheless willfully difficult: he wants to paint in bright, cheery colors, but insists on working unwieldy acrylic paint and various textured materials to get there. His palette is often muted to the point of muddiness; forms are obscured; the handwriting perfunctory. He is the kind of artist who lives his oxymorons — surfaces are painstakingly spontaneous, images are tortuously slight.
Rather like Mr. Demand, Mr. James pays attraction to generic modernism as a loaded motif. Mr. James prefers vernacular buildings over landmarks, but with a poignant attachment to them as specific places — one painting, indeed, is titled “A House in my Mother’s Hometown.” In some works, “House” (2008), for instance, a simple box-like structure denoting a modern house is filled in with childlike primary colors as if the motif is demanding a more modernist solution to the construction of the painting than in, say, the more romantic or impressionist approaches to older buildings and landscapes. It is as if Modernism itself is a subject of nostalgia.
A difference between Mr. Demand and Mr. James might come down to their individual mix of intention and temperament, but neither is a caricature of the hot romantic or the cool conceptualist. Mr. Demand’s precise, calculated coldness has political pertinence and its own kind of poetry, while Mr. James’s warm expressivity is no less cerebral, deliberated, or concerned with what it signifies.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, December 13, 2007 under the heading “Model Agencies”