Merlin James, House in Marshes, 2011, mixed media on MDF, 23 5/8 x 31 1/8".

Merlin James, House in Marshes, 2011, mixed media on MDF, 23 5/8 x 31 1/8".

Merlin James

Merlin James, House in Marshes, 2011, mixed media on MDF, 23 5/8 x 31 1/8".

Spanning more than fifteen years, the twenty-one works collected in Merlin James’s exhibition “Painting” epitomize his signature blend of dizzyingly diverse subjects, styles, and techniques. From a faux-naive still life with bird rendered in thick earth tones, Male Bird (Pecking), 2008–11, to a minimalist study in turquoise just barely suggesting architecture (Building, 2008); from Untitled, 2009, a gritty close-up of a sex act, to Burn and Grotto, ca. 2000–2009, an abstract diptych that has been burned, punctured, and collaged, James—an art critic as well as a painter—is consistent only in his determination to eschew genre, comparison, and easy description.

Included in this roundup were five “frame paintings,” made on sheer nylon or polyester sheets through which the frame’s infrastructure (screws, staples, stretcher bars) as well as added decorative objects are visible. Three of these—Red Frame, 2009; Dark, 2011; and Silver, 2011—were nonrepresentational, their titles direct references to the frames themselves. More complex were two landscapes in which figurative elements on both sides of the diaphanous scrim work in tandem to create recognizably Jamesian topographies. Like miniature stage sets, these scenes negotiate distinct physical planes: the back and front of the painted surface and the shallow three-dimensional space between the frame and the wall. House in Marshes, 2011, depicts a lone hilltop tree and a small structure in the outlying wetlands. The knoll is demarcated by a triangular piece of drab material—a kind of cardboard, affixed on the wall side of the scrim—that slopes up to the right as it runs along the bottom of the composition. Messy dabs and smudges of muted coral, khaki, and cream on the painting’s surface pull the hill into the foreground while describing its swampy texture. Using a concoction of acrylic and hair, James gives the tree (the largest element in the composition) an organic, if grisly, appearance. The distant house on the painting’s left side is, in fact, a wooden miniature. The inclusion of a found object and its placement behind the scrim suggest a link to Joseph Cornell, but James’s works are not assemblages; covered with paint, ranging from watery smears to luscious blisters, their surfaces—including parts of the frames themselves—declare them as paintings.

Farm Building Gold Frame, 2011, also depicts a small wooden house and lone painted tree. In this case, both scenic elements are located at the bottom edge of the composition. The painting is dominated by a ruddy purple wash, interrupted by circular blotches of blue-green and yellowy gold. A small circle of shimmering white in the center of the painting suggests a high-noon sun. This sparser and more abstract composition focuses attention onto the frame, which appears simultaneously structural and mimetic. In addition to being represented by a wooden model, the structure mentioned in the title is reiterated through the triangulated support slats of the frame, which evoke the wood-beam construction of a peaked roof as seen from below.

What makes this emphasis on frames so striking is that James has heretofore avoided them. Frequently, he manipulates the sides and corners of his paintings, including many in this show. From the striped fabric visible around the edges of Black Bird, 2004–11, to the painted gray and tan bands bracketing each side of Loon, 2008, James tends to work beyond the traditional boundaries of the canvas and often paints or collages borders directly onto his compositions. Rather than a retreat to convention, the use of actual frames in these recent works is an extension of this critical practice and a challenge to conventional modes of display. Treating the frame as raw material, James elevates it to an integral part of the artwork itself and, in so doing, thwarts the frame’s ability to confine or objectify his paintings.

Mara Hoberman