The paintings have not gotten bigger. The artist continues to paint landscapes, interiors, and other genre scenes. Some of the paintings have a hole (or what the artist calls a “negative collage”) in them. There are paintings done on damaged-looking nylon fabric, which reminds me of a used dishcloth or package wrapping. There are also a number of “frame paintings,” in which the artist has used a found frame to make a shallow box exposing the work’s stretcher bars. A transparent sheet of silk or nylon has been stretched over the bars to create a scrim on which a few daubs of paint might be added. Those daubs can become a house, or a tree, or a row of factory buildings.
All of these experiences can be had at Merlin James: Paintings For Persons currently at Sikkema Jenkins (October 12 – November 12, 2016), an exhibition which is not to be missed. I got the feeling that if a strong wind were to blow through the gallery — you know the huffy-puffy kind that big, bad, doctrinaire wolves can generate – it would likely destroy these works: that’s how vulnerable they seem. That vulnerability — a condition rarely seen in contemporary painting — never seems fetishized or precious. This art does not ask for the viewer’s sympathy. Rather, the paintings — with their holes, stains, daubs of paint, and scraped surfaces — come across as the inescapable state of things, our shared material condition. We are all damaged things that will eventually be further defaced and vandalized by time. I cannot think of another artist who weaves together desolation and joy to such an exquisite pitch.
Don’t be fooled by the modest scale, the seemingly casualness, vulnerable materiality — no one calibrates effects as casually and perfectly as Merlin James, one of the most talented and ambitious artists working today — because he belongs to that small group of painters who eschew the big subject, objectivity, systematic approaches, and stylistic consistency — all those markers of what promoters call “serious art.” In an era that celebrates celebrity, vulgar loudmouths, puerile provocateurs, selfie-addicts, and excessive materialists, James prefers subtlety over din, less rather than more.
“An Old Tree” (2016) was done on a vertical sheet of nylon fabric printed with a grid of tiny dark and light blue squares — the modernist grid as commercial pointillism. The fabric has been punctured in the upper right-hand corner. While it is not a bullet hole, I could not help but make that association. Living in America does that to you. The different applications of paint on the sky (or checked fabric), which we are apt to read as some kind of cumulus, could be stains rather than deliberate marks. Maybe the artist used the to wipe his brushes clean? In the lower left-hand side, James has painted a tree of white blossoms, possibly a white dogwood, by applying daubs of paint that recall Vincent van Gogh and his love of Japanese prints and Asian scrolls. All the while, the support maintains its identity as a dirty piece of industrial fabric on which someone has deposited some bits of a paint.
In “Lecturer (Father)” (2016), the painting is more-or-less divided across the middle, with the lower half filled with variously sized ovals indicating the backs of the heads of people sitting in a classroom, and the upper half is rust-red. The head nearest to us, the one in the lower left corner and cropped by the painting’s left edge, is deep mineral blue. The others are black and grey. Some are more thickly painted than others. They go from abstract to almost legible as head and hair. The heads are turned toward a figure at a lectern pointing to what is most likely a blackboard, but also looks like an abstract painting. The figure is abstract, with the hand gesturing to the blackboard seeming to be nothing but a smear of paint. James can be figurative in one painting and, in another, rub a surface with paint, make a palpable, potently suggestive smear on the surface. His mastery of mark-making is pretty much in a class by itself. At no point do you feel like he’s showing off.
There is a large hole in the middle of the lectern, which James never explains. Is it about the vulnerability of painting, or is it the death of the authority figure, the one who makes pronouncements on the state of art? The feeling of rage is unmistakable. In a related painting, “Lecturer (Mother)” (2016), a woman sits on a chair with her legs crossed, her arms extending out, her palms up. What lesson is she teaching? What about the yellow surface and the blue shapes and the feeling they convey, that everything is damaged and worn but not used up?
This is what further distinguishes James’ work from many of his contemporaries. He gets at all sorts of feelings without ever locking them into a narrative. He doesn’t tell us how to read his paintings. He gives us that responsibility and, in that regard, he is a generous artist who trusts that we will respond to the work with a degree of reflection. At a time of over-sharing on social media, James makes paintings that are private but not closed off, not hermetic. The small factory, the passenger train rolling across a viaduct, and the woman depicted in profile all underscore that privacy, the sense of distance we feel from each other. And yet, private as these paintings are, the feelings they expose are as personal as any I have encountered in a work of art – the kind you don’t want to spell out because you are not even sure if you can.
Merlin James: Paintings For Persons continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 12.