Review: Merlin James

Paintings long for an unreachable past.

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Merlin James's paintings are flecked with dust and scruff. One can easily imagine them, looking a little broken-down, as talismans of the past, stored for generations in a grandmother's attic. In James's current show at Sikkema Jenkins, the works fit roughly into three categories: lyrical abstractions, psychological landscapes, and stretcher frames and cross-bars festooned with incidental interventions. Modestly scaled easel paintings, they are apparently the result of several years of staining, scraping, scrubbing and just sitting around in the studio.

Upon close inspection, the content in these relics appears to be about longing for an unreachable past, whether it's an outmoded genre of painting or a barely accessible memory. Images and ideas appear through a scrim or a screen, pushed into the distance. James has embedded a self-consciousness into his paintings—a modern habit that belies their old-timey effect.

In Small Factories, an exposed support is animated with smears of paint and hairs. Painting is reduced to its barest elements, but there is still a place to project into, maybe even a picture. Cove depicts a house with a window that's been made from cutting into the canvas (James refers to this as "negative collage"). The house floats over transparent orbs and bits of colored crud. We are clearly in the dream space of painting but with an awareness of the physical acts of addition and subtraction that coaxed it into being. Like houses, paintings are places where its inhabitants can flourish and fester in equal measure. Despite James's cooled-down postmodern approach to deconstructing the objectness of his work, there is a warmed-up sense of an artist who can conjure a place to live and sustain himself from even the leanest scraps.

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Sikkema Jenkins & Co., through Aug 12;