Critics’ Picks

Merlin James, Dredge, 2018, mixed media, 47 x 85".

Merlin James, Dredge, 2018, mixed media, 47 x 85".


Merlin James

71 Oxford Street Room 106, Oxford House
September 15–November 3, 2018

There is just a painting in a room, the light, some mandarin air. The riverside vista in Merlin James’s painting Dredge, 2018, cannot be seen from A-M-G5, Andrew Mummery’s new space, but the gallery is only one block away from the site it depicts, on the north bank of the Clyde in central Glasgow; among other things, one can pick out the pyramids of the St. Enoch Centre and the tower of the Briggait. Dredge is the only work on show, and given its current physical proximity to the river scene itself, a dialectic is produced between subject and object. This foregrounds the departures from reality, painterly qualities, and subjective handling present in the work, which was painted from memory.

A cool palette runs throughout. Under the white Scottish sky the thinning trees have the look of autumn, and the apartment blocks, church, and riverside amphitheater are unoccupied. The blank clockfaces of the buildings along the bank are reminiscent of early Giorgio de Chirico. Areas of raw canvas are left blank or sparsely populated with provisional dashes, lines of acrylic, or small circles. A dredger labors in the water, sifting and processing slowly.

The only accompaniment is a verse of poetry titled “river/willow” (2018), a translation by Harry Gilonis of a Tang Dynasty–era Chinese text by Yu Xuanji (844–869). It is reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s translations in Cathay (1915), and its austere, felicitous lines (“Kingfisher-green collates sparse spaces”) enhance the metaphysical leaning of the painting. James renders quotidian details strangely notional and abstract. The echoes of the painting’s intricate stillness and the actual location form a meditation on mutability and transience that speaks to thoughts in the emptiness of afternoons.