Despite the obituaries written for the medium since the 19th century, people like paintings, and painters like to make them. Which might explain the recent countervailing argument, which stipulates that contemporary artists must somehow allow that painting used to be dead, even if it never really was. This sort of nonsense informs shows like MoMA’s contemporary painting survey, “The Forever Now.”
Nevertheless, Welsh painter Merlin James would have been my pick for that show, though, admittedly, there’s a lot of art-world aficionados with left-out artist lists of their own. His latest show fields modestly scaled compositions packing the punch of grand ambitions. Each is a cocktail of figure, landscape, still life and abstraction, spiked with a measure of melancholy or wistful remembrance. James also takes a reflexive look at the glass: Some of the canvases are shaped, and some are made of stretched transparent mesh, revealing occasionally painted wooden supports. Other works edge their subjects with bands of color or sport tiny architectural models.
James explores painting’s plasticity not only as smeared pigment but also as an art-historical tradition that’s kneaded, pulled apart and mushed back into formats familiar and not. He makes this point almost literally with a number of works whose sides are bowed as if they’d been squeezed by a giant hand.
The brushwork varies from thick (the faint cerulean background behind the titular Single Flower) to soaked in (the foregrounded landscape in Bridge) to dragged or dappled. The palette can be muted or break out into bright tones (like the sylvan view in Silver Birch). Echoes of Turner, Bacon and Albert Pinkham Ryder abound.
Pure abstractions are included here, but mostly James is an imagist wandering the terrain of memory. At issue, however, is not just the individual’s anamnesis, but painting’s itself—a discipline that’s always looked backward to move ahead.—Howard Halle