Merlin James/Serge Charchoune

Mummery + Schnelle

Over the past two decades, Merlin James has quietly established himself as one of the more interesting painters around, as well as one of the best critics of painting. His work might be taken for that of a nostalgic academic or a postmodern pluralist, but the very fact that these two distinct, if not opposed, identities present themselves suggests that settling on either one would be a misprision of his project. It’s true that his paintings dredge up styles from the past, and lots of them at that, but he neither invokes them as eternal verities nor toys with them with insouciant lightness. Rather, James dwells on painting’s multiplicity as its great fact and great mystery—meaning that even its finest exemplars convey no more than part of its truth, while even journeymen can sometimes surpass themselves. In James’s work, humor, poetry, mental gamesmanship, and a sense of reserve that is nonetheless unashamed of sentiment never conceal that homage to past masters is always a deformation.

James’s most recent exhibition included seven paintings, of which four appear to represent a cohesive group. Nocturnal in palette, this quartet contains references to architecture (the viewer can make out columns and arches, for example) but remains fundamentally abstract—suggestive rather than descriptive. Dense in surface, these works, begun as long ago as 1984, seem to have been made by a process of painting, cutting up, collaging, and repainting. Despite the apparent coherence lent by their architectural structure, there is a pieced-together quality to these paintings, as though each were a meeting place for disparate pictorial impulses that were only synthesized at the work’s completion. That may sound like a formula for incoherence, but is actually what gives the paintings their understated yet intense emotional tug. Two of the paintings, by contrast, are representational: an awkward takeoff on George Stubbs (Horse with Jockey Up, 2008) and a fetishistic female nude (Untitled, ca. 2003–2006); a third, A Bird, 2008, strands a recognizable image in an abstract context.

Alongside his own exhibition, James brought together a dozen small paintings and drawings by a nearly forgotten Russian-born painter of the École de Paris, Serge Charchoune (1889–1975). Charchoune was touched by Cubism, Dada, and other modernist movements, yet seems always to have kept at a distance from them. At times he shows affinities with painters as different as Francis Picabia, Nicolas de Staël, and Jean Hélion, but the affinities never settle into outright resemblances. Biomorphism, geometry, and tachism are all entertained, not as solutions but as problems. His touch can be nonchalant almost to the point of bluntness (Epiderme–paysage, 1929) or cautious and vulnerable (St. Germain, 1931); either compulsive (the monochromatic Piano, clavecin, harpe, 1962) or impatiently gestural (Pluie colorée 1 [Colored Rain 1], 1937). “I am a complicated primitive,” he declared in an essay in 1969, as if to ward off categorization. For James, it is the works’ “very modesty and meagreness, their secrecy even, and within that their paradoxical expansiveness and energy” that make them interesting today.

The reasons for James’s fascination with Charchoune are patent. Himself catholic enough to move with ease from quasi-expressionist abstraction à la Alexej von Jawlensky to animalier pastiche, as well as fixated enough to keep at the same pieces for half his lifetime, when James argues that Charchoune’s “whole career was a continual process of re-assimilating and synthesising” with “no simple arc of stylistic development,” he might as well be speaking of himself.

Barry Schwabsky