Critics’ Picks

Merlin James, Herbin (left panel), 1998–2008, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 20''.

Merlin James, Herbin (left panel), 1998–2008, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 20''.


Merlin James

Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA)
350 Sauchiehall Street
January 23–March 13, 2016

Merlin James sometimes refers to his activity as “easel painting,” and it makes sense, considering the intimate scale and historic subject matter he usually works with. This survey, which covers over three decades of production and contains thirty-one paintings, twenty-one drawings, and fifty-four sculptures, mostly of model buildings displayed in vitrines, offers a succinct view of the Welshman’s projects. It is rare that these tiny sculptures, normally found within his paintings and constructed from leftover wood fragments, get exhibited.

James’s paintings are predominately landscapes in format and evocation. They depict a wide range of things: buildings, birds, artists, sex, the past, and even a luggage carousel. He references Poussin, Courbet, and, most obviously, Auguste Herbin, in a work titled Herbin (left panel), 1998–2008. Its geometric composition is signed with the French painter’s name instead of James’s, though interestingly, in James’s cursive hand, “Herbin” looks a lot like “Merlin.”

The corpus on view is ill at ease and hardly easy. James’s work has sought to rigorously problematize the experience of painting while simultaneously deepening its formal language. In the elegant Hanger, 2016, the object’s darkly lacquered stretcher bars can be seen through its mesh surface. They suggest a tree, while a long cross bar indicates a horizon line. James’s antagonistic use of holes, sticks, hair, fabric, and thick swatches of paint seem to make what he does, more than anything else, deeply poetic.