New York

Merlin Carpenter

American Fine Arts

Merlin Carpenter is known for his frequent and strategic stylistic shifts in response to new contexts and subject matter. His shows are often constructed around contradictory tendencies, elaborating discrepancies between what a painting appears to be and how it behaves in relation to the structures that legitimate its appearance. Although “Children of the Projects” resembled a tasteless, racist joke—which on the one hand it was—it also staged a funnier (and more serious) scenario in which painting was challenged to outwit its destiny to just hang there and look like something (e.g., a racist joke).

For these images of disadvantaged urban youth, which the London-based artist painted during a recent stay in New York, Carpenter revisits the harsh colors and aggressive gestures of early-’80s neo-expressionism. Putting this played-out energy into the service of a hackneyed and illustrational social realism, his paintings enter an aesthetic equivalent of the bad neighborhoods they depict. Creepy, crass, sometimes offensive tableaux depicting black kids playing with guns, hawking cheap merchandise, and hanging out in vacant lots are derived from sentimental Victorian illustrations of street urchins and chimney sweeps. Painted in fast, loose strokes, such scenes take sharp turns into the absurd: a boy mesmerized by the miracle of his own canoe-size sneakers, the appearance of sheep and a ghost against looming backdrops of public housing, not to mention the bizarre clash of nineteenth-century lace-up boots, bowler hats, and petticoats with contemporary do-rags and NBA gear. City bricks—flat, cartoonish, impenetrable—recur in several works; in Immaculate Conception‚ 2002, they crumble to reveal a melancholic sunset, and the projects suddenly take on the aspect of a Romantic folly. Carpenter pushes social cliché (mustering whatever heat is still available in bad taste) and painterly conventions to the point at which they seem to cave in on themselves, and it’s in this collision and collapse that the potential for what he calls “Real Painting” is opened up.

In the middle of the room, Carpenter erected twin towers of flimsy, paint-splattered Masonite—pulled from the studio floor where he’d worked on the canvases. On these he hung the all-black ’80s dresses and power suits of a fashionable, white, art-world player. These non-artworks (they were not on the checklist) could be read in any number of ways: as three-dimensional action paintings, as a reference to 9/11 (they collapsed under their own weight a week after the show opened), as Minimalist barricades set up between the spectator and the show’s images, as aesthetic “projects” (art as social failure), etc. Time-release catastrophes, they exacerbated what was at play in the paintings and intentionally destabilized the coherence of the exhibition by putting material stress on what was represented. The safety or boredom of prescribed positions and distances—between painter and subject, image and viewer, the art world and the “real world”—was subverted or illustrated or both by this seemingly last-minute guerrilla tactic. In “Children of the Projects,” the desire to paint is also a frustration with the limits of painting and its present culture, which the artist both assumes and unsettles in the same, irreducible gesture.

John Kelsey