New York

Merlin James

In a solo exhibition last year at the New York Studio School, “Painting to Painting,” Welsh artist Merlin James made plain his process of art historical mining. In the press release, titles of works were annotated with references (“after Delacroix,” “after Corot,” and so on), and a companion website cited the sources—modernism’s gamut, from luminaries to also-rans—of a practice that in the past twenty years has encompassed portraiture, still life, interior, landscape, and abstraction. The allusions in “Paintings of Buildings,” James’s latest show at Sikkema, Jenkins & Co., were less patent but still unmissable: He nods to Andre Derain’s orderly delimitations of color in House and Tree, 2007, to Raoul Dufy’s rainbow brushiness in Shed, 2007, to Paul Klee’s pictographic denotation in House, 2007.

Klee’s simile for picture making in his 1920 “Creative Credo” offers an apt figure for the paintings on view: “Does a pictorial work come into being at one stroke? No, it is constructed bit by bit, just like a house.” In twenty-six small images of houses, churches, sheds, and industrial architecture such as conveyor belts and viaducts, James makes use of both the edifice depicted as a structuring tool and of the notion of building as an allegory for his own accretive technique. The combination of taking his time (a few of these were many years in the making) and painting in quick-drying acrylic begets thickly worked surfaces, built up in multiple strata and clotted with passages of impasto. Even apparently casual marks such as dashed brushstrokes and crayonlike swipes seem to screen a dense substrate. Hair, dirt, and bits of paper are embedded in some works, and in others thin strips of wood, lodged beneath layers of paint, describe contours—a pair of railings in House, Horizon, Fences, 2007, and the framework of a dwelling in Red & Black House, 1999.

These are easel-size, achingly modest paintings, and James—a formalist through and through—takes pains to affirm their status as objects. Line is used not only to demarcate form but to reiterate the shape of the support. And, as if the profusion of windows, doorways, and receding diagonals were not enough to signal the penetrability of the canvas, the artist punctures several of them with a single circular or rectangular opening. Doorway, 2005–2006, is a practical digest of modernist pictorial devices. Grainy scumbles activate its surface as a small painted square in each corner pronounces the boundaries of that surface, while a line bifurcating the image and a cutout tab atop the line indicate a horizon—except that the tab has been peeled back and affixed to the canvas, reasserting its flatness. This show contained work of the past fourteen years, and the decision to not hang it chronologically is in keeping with James’s method—dipping into the past intermittently, borrowing and retooling a convention or two, moving on, and then returning to similar concerns a few years later.

All of which sounds certainly unfashionable, likely academic, and possibly even grave-diggingly retrograde. (James writes criticism as well, and has lectured on the continuing viability of medium specificity.) But the sheer bashfulness of these paintings, the range of their maker’s stylistic skills, and his evident facility with, as he puts it, “all those things that sound a bit boring and worthy when you talk about them, color, light, composition, the old nuts and bolts of painting,” overwhelm any possible critical charge of recidivism. Resetting the bones of modernism is an old project, but it’s one that now, especially in James’s hands, feels quietly radical.

Lisa Turvey