New York

Merlin James, Big Landscape Painting, 2011, acrylic on polyester, 40 3/4 x 57 1/4".

Merlin James, Big Landscape Painting, 2011, acrylic on polyester, 40 3/4 x 57 1/4".

Merlin James

Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Merlin James, Big Landscape Painting, 2011, acrylic on polyester, 40 3/4 x 57 1/4".

Easel-size paintings in historical genres (still lifes, portraits, interiors, and landscapes) that frequently picture domestic architecture (facades, empty rooms, or entire houses), Merlin James’s canvases cannot help but read as passé. Yet soliciting such an interpretation—or even relishing a contrarian stance—does not implicate James any more than the rest of us, for whom his practice serves a perennially heuristic function: Viewers question his motivations. In his writing and artmaking alike, James works through the positions of contemporary discourse, even as his production refuses to become a cipher, an illustration of theory or a placeholder for its evacuation. Thus do most texts about James turn on the question of his sincerity, often proposing that his quaint depictions of architecture (here, the houses, above all) neither appeal to the salvation of a shopworn humanism nor cede its clichéd, ironic inverse, too long the guarantor of post-postmodern credentials.

James’s most recent show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.—a presentation of more than twenty paintings made between 1989 and 2011—argued forcefully that experimentation has consistently rested at the heart of his project. Arranged in no particular order, the works trace his involvement with a wide range of historical flotsam—from seascapes to abstractions—and pictorial effects: Surfaces are painted thick or thin, abraded, festooned with sawdust or matted hair, and sometimes cut into to achieve “negative collage” (holes in the canvas that expose the walls behind them). New mixed-media constructions feature applications of paint on translucent polyester, through which crossbars and exceedingly elaborate stretchers are visible; these wooden components serve as signal, willfully prepossessing compositional elements. Viewed alongside the full sweep of James’s output, the newer works emphasized the continuity of his interests, chief among them the picture plane and the ways in which its incipient illusionism might be managed. From the early Building with Hoarding, 1989, to Toll Booth, 2000–2006, James engages with framing devices and planar elements to create three-dimensional renderings. Big Landscape Painting, 2011, in particular, reinforces the sense of horizon common to so many of James’s pieces with its dimensions (it is much wider than it is tall) and midline of a wooden slat that runs beneath the cloudy polyester support.

James’s attention to composition and the range of painterly devices he employs may seem like a kind of studied formalism. Indeed, the exhibition’s press release tries to secure this reading, even as it admits—through disavowal—the very real possibility that James might be understood as a cynic: “The present show demonstrates that the artist’s motivation is not fundamentally negative or perverse. He pursues a unique poetic vision and restless interrogation of art and experience.” The statement thus suggests that James’s tactics are deconstructive and affirms the critique that his work is historicist. In any case, the show made me think about a different operation altogether: namely, what the principled refusal of being contemporary might mean, or, put differently, what believing in the virtue of being out of step with one’s time—typified by James’s slow working process—might do.

Suzanne Hudson