Merlin James, "Painting to Painting," Feb. 8-Mar. 24, 2007, at the New York Studio School, 8 West 8th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
"I don’t want to turn this into a parlor game of ‘spot the sources’," Merlin James muses as we stand in the middle of his current survey show at the New York Studio School. Merlin is conducting a walk-through for me and the painter Martha Diamond, following his very successful opening the night before. The 33 small-scale paintings reference an eclectic range of earlier artists, and are at the same time works of absolute originality and beauty.
With respect to their size, James comments, "There’s not an ideological reason for that. I knew I didn’t want to make big museum-sized paintings." The earliest works date to the mid-80s, but for Merlin, "The last ten years of paintings are always current."
Well-known as both an artist and critic in New York and London, James shows at Sikkema Jenkins and lives in Glasgow with the painter Carol Rhodes. We are looking at the mesmerizing White Jug, which is in reality a glass pitcher and based loosely upon the still-lifes by Edwardian artist Sir William Nicholson.
"This was worked on for a very long time," the artist explains. "It’s been cut down, made bigger again. The other bottle became another painting."
Martha queries him about the catching background that appears to be technically effortless: "I was looking at how you painted this, which looks like rain on old glass," she said.
"Exactly," Merlin replies. "It’s like moonlight on a wet window, rain on dirty glass."
The acrylic-on-canvas paintings present seductively manipulated pigment, often including dirt, hair, sawdust or bits of wooden stripping. Canvases are collaged, incised, left with metaphorical holes. "No one thinks they’re acrylic -- I don’t even bother correcting it," James says.
The opalescent Demos is inspired by a Delacroix sketch, Demosthenes on the Seashore. The Greek orator is vigorously portrayed with spare decisive strokes, outstretching his energetic arm, his body dancing with a strange calligraphic grace. The viewer can imagine his words echoing in the wind.
Further referencing Delacroix, the two paintings Castaways and Boat both take up "the maritime theme, which is always a hit." In the lower cut-up and stapled half of Castaways, a sensuous linear tangle has been collaged and reworked, and can be interpreted as an aquatic mirror -- or as James says, it "partly acts as a refection, or like water gushing."
The survivors in Boat are huddled adrift against a tangerine striated sky. "You can almost hear the air," comments Martha. Merlin says, "Boats are a great subject. The play on this idea is a painting as a lifesaving refuge, or even painting as a surreptitious act."
Three paintings are inspired from the Alinari (Fratelli) archives, a Florentine photographic archive of "fantastic images of Italian architecture and life and so on." The monochromatic and textured Windmill 2001 derives fairly directly from a 19th-century photo of a Southern Italian windmill. The four seated Sisters are nuns from the same photographic collection. Untitled (Don Quixote) is from the Daumier series. A haunting palette of light and dark creates the color-infused abstraction of a heroic ochre figure astride a blue-hooved horse. Don Quixote’s familiar lance and shield mirror the painter’s own palette and brush.
The immediacy and virtuosity of these paintings almost puts a spell on the viewer. An artist at the opening was overheard saying, "This makes you want to go home and paint again." These paintings are small and subtle in scale and proportion, yet their effect is far from the grandiose pictures we often see today. Intensely captivating, they are like jewels.
Meticulously curated by critic David Cohen, the exhibition features a range of images that are as provocative and unexpected as the works themselves. Merlin says he doesn’t view "this work as done by a rational artist with a project. It’s more crazy then that." Behind each painting lies the memory of a masterpiece.
Merlin James will represent his native Wales in the upcoming Venice Biennale.
ILKA SCOBIE is a poet.