It’s hard for painting to escape its own past, so trying to do something new with the medium is a pretty tall order. Merlin James doesn’t bother. Instead, over the course of a 30-year career, the Welsh painter has created a body of work which constantly refers to and reimagines painting and its history.
The result here is a mini survey that’s a field day for art nerds. You can spot the semi-abstract formality of Nicolas de Staël, turbulent Turner-esque seascapes, post-impressionist hill views and Kandinsky-like colour compositions. There is Van Gogh’s sower, rendered in rough blobs of blue and yellow. There are Chagall’s trees, hazy and contorted.
James comes across like a sampler, chopping and screwing his sources for new purposes. But it’s a challenge to make sense of a room that puts modernist abstraction next to surrealist composition and naive, although admittedly charming, landscape painting. Some of it has a raw beauty.
There’s a quiet aesthetic determination and a strong compositional eye in works such as ‘Toll House’ (1983) and the almost sculpturally layered ‘Chalet and Other Building’ (2009). But, as a whole, the show is more difficult and confusing than it should be. What saves it is the sense of James on a deeply personal exploration of something he truly loves. The paintings are studies of not only art, but possibly of the artist himself. It makes for a compelling, though gentle, glimpse into his mind.