Sikkema Jenkins & Co. is proud to present a solo exhibition of work by Merlin James, on view from January 28 through March 7, 2015.
Following recent major solo surveys at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin and Kunstverein Freiburg, Merlin James' current solo exhibition, his eighth with the gallery, comprises primarily recent works. These include a group of distinctively shaped canvases in which two sides are bowed inwards, reviving a format the artist first experimented with in the early 1980s. The exhibition also features the semi-transparent framed supports James been using since around 2010, as well as more conventional paintings on canvas.
While known for his stress on the history and continuity of painting as a discipline, James has acknowledged in both his art practice and writing the necessity for development and continual reinvention of art forms. However, in contrast to proclaimed avant-garde ‘breakthroughs' such as pure abstraction, the monochrome, painting-as-object, and painting-as-idea, James offers open, ruminative explorations around comparatively modest shifts within the traditional forms and functions of easel pictures. These include unique and idiosyncratic mixes of abstraction and representation; unusual degrees of sexual explicitness; variations on one divergence from the rectangular format (concave sides); incorporation of small objects into painting; and experiments with the singular proposition of a transparent support.
In the process, painting is revealed to have always tacitly incorporated the reflexiveness supposedly achieved with Modernism and Postmodernism. Relatedly, James apparently disregards calls for art to be 'relevant' or demonstrably of its time, either technically or thematically. Rather, by taking contemporaneity as a given, his low-tech works often play on oldness, or period-indeterminacy.
Under the title Genre Paintings, the current exhibition offers still-lifes, landscapes, abstract compositions, nocturnes, erotica, marines, and other identifiable set pieces of the painter's craft. These however diverge from, as much as they conform to, their category definitions. More broadly the title affirms the idea, albeit problematic, of typology and category within art itself – a proposition of art-form specificity.
James has frequently parried biographical and narrowly intentionalist explanations for his own and other works of art. He often cites genre and convention as alternative sources for painterly meaning. Nevertheless, as his recent works again demonstrate, it is difficult not to speculate on how the poetry and expressivity in his paintings, mixing beauty and idiosyncrasy with apparent loneliness, longing or nostalgia, might relate to personal narrative and philosophic attitude.
Merlin James’ work has been exhibited widely, including in recent solo survey shows at the Kunstverein Freiburg in Freiburg, Germany; KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin; and Parasol Unit Foundation for the Arts in London. In 2007 Merlin James represented Wales at the 52nd Venice Biennale.
Alongside his painting practice, James has written extensively on art, and a volume of his collected criticism is planned from London publisher Modern Art Press. Among curating projects he recently organized an exhibition on the work of Franco-Russian painter Serge Charchoune (1889-1975) for which he also authored the catalogue. The show premiered at the Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 2012 before traveling to the Smart Museum of Art at University of Chicago. It will travel to Kunstsaele, Berlin, in 2015.
Born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1960, Merlin James studied in London at the Central School of Art and the Royal College of Art. He currently lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland.