New York

Merlin James

It has often been observed that Merlin James’s solo shows look like group shows, and this twenty-year survey proved the point, with a full range of painterly genres—seascape, landscape, portrait, erotic, interior, still life—on display, as well as variations in style ranging from dark impasto on misshapen, detritus-strewn canvases to smoother, Fauvish studies. James’s imagery is so calculatedly disparate as to deny not only the coherence lent by shared authorship but the very possibility of narrative. Indeed, his work, perhaps inadvertently, conveys more than a hint of the problematics of meaning in contemporary painting: As much as he strives to articulate his place in a figurative tradition that stretches from John Constable to Walter Sickert and Giorgio Morandi, his quasi homage strenuously resists its own time.

While James’s rendering is self-consciously unvirtuosic and the acrylic he uses a poor substitute for oil, his reverence for Romantic atmospherics is clear. The influence of his idols ranges from borrowed styles (his drab interiors seem to refer directly to the Camden Town Group; his barely-there strokes of acrylic, sometimes mixed with sand, call to mind both the dry-brush technique of J. M. W. Turner and the granular oil stick of Jasper Johns) to outright copies of works by Nicolas Poussin and Meindert Hobbema, among others (though these were not on view here). The small paintings feel archeological, atavistic: Though grubby and dim, some with holes poked through them, they are nonetheless like precious relics that remind us of the vast gulf between painting’s conflicted present and its antique heyday.

James has claimed that he wants each painting to be a “unique locus of experience,” a goal that helps distinguish his project from those of similarly enigmatic, pale-palette contemporaries like Gerhard Richter and Luc Tuymans, whose canvases remark on the diminished authority of the brushstroke, itself perhaps symptomatic of a broader crisis of faith. James applies himself earnestly, if dispassionately, and his unassuming paintings feel persistently personal. What barely saves his project from degenerating into a love letter to the past is his un-Romantic subject matter, which is almost insignificant in its utter banality. Combining hyperconventional subjects with his mix-and-match approach to genre, James foregrounds the apparent paucity of meaning in contemporary painting. Straightforward barns; schematic scapes; the heavy curl of a frozen wave; a gray, anatomically correct sex scene utterly devoid of erotic charge: In uncomfortably arid strokes, James lays down just enough paint to articulate the basics of his composition, denying the viewer any visual satisfaction in favor of a purely intellectual thesis. James is a highly regarded critic as well as a painter, and he simply knows too much to make eye candy.

James’s true subject, of course, is painting itself, specifically the kind that can no longer be done without a dose of irony, and thus his imagery must be negligible: pure cipher. Open doorways seem to signify entry points for the eye and mind, empty rooms stand as spaces of potential. The still lifes and outdoor scenes that James refers to may not have been especially loaded with significance even in their day, but the genre itself seemed to lend them a certain authority. Now these scenes evoke only the burden of the past. Addressing himself ambitiously to the decline of his chosen medium, James meets with limited success: By keeping his project safely within the bounds of painting, he cannot touch the reasons behind its ongoing crisis, which lie elsewhere; and by anchoring his work so firmly to the no-longer-possible, he fails to generate much excitement for the medium’s future.

Nell McClister