What Does It Mean to Be a Grown-Up Painter?

Merlin James, “Red” (2013-2014) (all images courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.)

Isn’t it time we begin putting things in perspective? Ever since the term entered the vocabulary via Raphael Rubinstein’s article, “Provisional Painting,” in Art in America (May 2009), a lot of attention has been focused on paintings that look tossed off, unfinished, and casual, as if that alone were enough to make us grateful. According to Rubinstein:

At a certain moment, in a certain studio, it appears that great painting may be impossible, that painting of any kind may be impossible. Nonetheless, for whatever reasons pertaining to a particular painter at a particular time, painting must be done, must go on.

A growing number of younger artists (and a few who have been showing for longer) are entertaining the idea of impossibility in painting. This has led them to reject a sense of finish in their work, or to rely on acts of negation.

With the emphasis on “impossible” and “negation,” Rubinstein is suggesting that the painter no longer needs to think about making a great painting, but simply “must go on,” as the voice whispers at the end of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.

This is how Peter Schjeldahl ended his recent New Yorker review of The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World at the Museum of Modern Art, New York: “Painting can bleed now, but it cannot heal.” According to Schjeldahl, “[…] painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information.”

These lamentations by Rubinstein and Schjeldahl — and there are many examples by other writers I could have given — about painting’s fallen status, its descent from Olympian greatness, remind me of people who preface everything with, “back in the good old days” or prattle on about how “you can’t paint like Rubens” anymore, as if that is what the world needed most.

It might be sad that no one and nothing can live up to these long-ago standards, but I am not going to start crying crocodile tears over what cannot be changed and may, in fact, have never even been true. Instead of being a professional mourner enumerating what painting can no longer do or hasn’t done, I think it is time to focus on what painting can do, and more importantly, has done.

Merlin James, “Willow” (2013-2014)

This is where Merlin James, one of the best painters around, comes in. James was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1960, and currently lives in Glasgow, Scotland. His exhibition, Genre Painting, is currently at Sikkema Jenkins (January 28 – March 7, 2015). Anyone interested in painting should go see it.

Modest in scale and done in acrylic, which he applies in so many ways, the paintings include still-life, landscapes, architecture and abstractions. These genre paintings are complemented by what James calls “frame paintings,” where he uses a stretcher, often securely held within a found frame, to make a shallow box whose interior armature (or stretcher bars) is visible through the semitransparent sheet of nylon or silk he has stretched over the bars, to create a picture plane. In the “frame paintings, James might paint on the surface or add a house-like structure made of pieces of wood behind the semitransparent gauzy material.

Although James works on a modest scale, and focuses on traditional subjects, he is a fiercely ambitious artist who can take a familiar, almost hackneyed subject — a plant on a table or a footbridge over a river — and by using muted colors and different viscosities of paint instill it with both a materiality and a sense of the ephemeral, which seem commemorative and mournful, special and ordinary, strange and curiously familiar. What makes the paintings all the more striking is that James doesn’t repeat himself, doesn’t become rhetorical. He is not going to rely on style to carry his work.

James doesn’t fall into the familiar art market camps being heavily promoted by curators and critics alike these days. He isn’t into copying, pastiche, faux improvisation, contempt, kitsch, irony, abstract lyricism, didacticism or literalism. There are no allusions to Abstract Expressionism in his work, no parodies of the gestural. He doesn’t pull back the canvas to simply show you that there is a stretcher behind it, which is to say he doesn’t come across as a teacher who underestimates the intelligence of his audience. James’ paintings are not platforms where gestures of contempt are deposited as some kind of meaningful residue. Such familiar negations strike me as proverbial outbursts of testosterone-fueled male adolescence. To his credit, James doesn’t want to be the latest manifestation of a male adolescent painter, a clichéd archetype that gained traction in the Neo-Expressionist ‘80s, with the rise of Julian Schnabel, and has not been thrown over because lots of people still find this sort of chest thumping entertaining. He is the only artist that can introduce whimsy into a work without devolving into the whimsical.

There are twenty-one paintings and “frame” paintings in the exhibition. By last count, at least six were my favorites. In the best works, James tests the limits of perception and its tenuous connection to language without devolving into affectation or didacticism, which is rather remarkable in this jargon-riddled age.

In “Red” (2013-14), the artist has stretched distressed plastic red netting over a bright white, stretched piece of cheap cloth. Other than his initials and the date in the lower right hand corner, it is hard to tell where the paint is deliberately applied and where it might have landed on this material grid by accident. By dissolving such familiar categories as objectivity and subjectivity, found and made, James advances the possibility that various levels of reality cannot be disentangled and analyzed without regard for the rest. Made from castaway materials, the modestly scaled “Red” does something that far larger pieces made on found surfaces often fail to do: it remains unpretentiousness and visually interesting.

Merlin James, “Old Kiln” (2012-2015)

In the “frame” painting, “Old Kiln” (2012-15), there is a little wooden, block-like structure, with a black smokestack mounted on top of the frame on the painting’s left side. A semitransparent material has been pulled over the stretcher bars, which fit tightly inside the stained frame. With the paint, it is sometimes hard to tell if it is applied to the gauzy surface or to the obverse side. They seem to be dried or stained passages of painting and something more — but what that is no one can say, and that is their staying power. The tiny kiln-like structure on top of the painting might be about change, and the bond between craft and art, but the statement does not comes across as heavy-handed. Merlin seems to be suggesting that isolation is necessary to creativity.

In this and other “frame” paintings, James assembles the material elements of a painting (stretcher bars, cloth-like material, and frame) without becoming reductive, didactic or literal. It is not an act of negation and it does not look tossed off. Rather, the opposite happens; we don’t see stripped- down forms, but a framed space that is both enclosed and vast. The semitransparent surfaces define a palpable atmospheric light (think Robert Ryman) that is evenly cast over a desolate realm. With a few pieces of constructed wood attached to the stretcher, James is able to evoke windows and cosmic spaces populated by a lone house. The desolation is fundamental, something we all share. We may have empathy for others, but the gauzy surface becomes a screen preventing us from reaching what is very close, but immensely distant.

In the “frame” painting, “Sunset” (2014), the sides of the black frame are bowed inward, the result of an unseen pressure. Formally speaking, James is committed to endowing everything in a “frame” painting with a function. James’ economy brings to mind what William Carlos Williams said about poems and machines:

There’s nothing sentimental about a machine […] A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.

Merlin James, “Abstraction” (2002-2015)

Done on unbleached canvas, while leaving the bottom half of the painting untouched, “Abstraction” (2002-2015) hovers between being a brown cloth surface on which paint has been applied and a deep space terminating at a far wall. James’ ability to make a painting that slips through language, rendering obsolete such terms as legibility and illegibility, representation and abstraction, is one of the wonders of the show.

James seems to believe that painting is not about categorizing and possessing but about seeing and experiencing the inchoate, often disturbing feelings we face in the most ordinary of situations. He can reinvigorate a subject as stale as a full moon above a landscape and water. In “Silver Birch” (2014-15), he divides the composition into distinct planes that oscillate between flatness and space. A slightly curving silver birch rises up from a blue plane, dividing the painting into two distinct realms, which feel connected but separate. The paradoxes feel necessary rather than artificial, arising from the recognition that reality is a puzzle in which the pieces do not fit together, even when they do.

Merlin James, “Silver Birch” (2014-2015)

James likes to use muted colors, though there are enough exceptions in this exhibition to let the discerning viewer know that it is not a shtick. Everything seems to hover between form and dissolution, suggesting that reality is constantly slipping away. The level of specificity he attains in each painting surpasses mannerism and rhetoric, which are the limitations many painters, even good ones, never get past. James is much more than that. How much more he will become, I cannot venture at this time.

Merlin James: Genre Paintings continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 7.

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