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Merlin James: Painting to Painting

Merlin James was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1960 and currently lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland. As well as a painter he is a writer on art, and from his days as a graduate at London’s Royal College of Art (when the school was located in the Victoria & Albert Museum) he has made extensive use of art history in his own work.

His choice of artists to work ‘from’ are eclectic, and he engages with sources at different levels: transcription, allusion, emulation, quotation.  Sometimes he will alight upon a work by a ‘minor master’ – for instance a sculpture in the V&A of a boy playing bagpipes, by the seventeeth-century sculptor Cibber. Other times he alludes to canonical figures – Titian, Courbet – though often in oblique or whimsical spirit. His relationship with the ‘philosopher-painter’ Poussin has a special resonance, and in 1995 James was the subject of an exhibition at the National Museum of Wales that hung his reworkings of Poussin’s Landscape with the Body of Phocion around the original work.

James’ involvement with art of the past places him in a complicated relationship with his times. He avoids the ironic relationship to old masters familiar from Dada and its latter day followers for whom anachronism is a conceptual device implying the end of painting.  But he is equally resistant to comforts derived from a revival of historical technique or subject matter. His attitude towards the past is often ambivalent – he is as aware of the problematics of tradition as of any sustaining myth of continuity.

In Merlin James, motif and material alike frequently offer metaphors for the condition of painting.  When, for instance, his canvases are punctured, scored, scratched or burnt, these strategies are not merely formal devices, though they may work at that level, but may be signifiers of painting damaged or distressed.   When he paints a broken viaduct in emulation of Corot there may even be an implied reference to rupture in the flow of tradition.  There is a recurrence of jesters, castaways, dreamers of a lost past (Don Quixote) or laborers with a simple faith in renewal and growth (the Sower) all of whom relate metaphorically to the act of painting.  A motif he has often depicted is a natural rock arch such as the one at Etretat, beloved of painters from Turner and Courbet through Monet and Matisse.  Caused by constant erosion, Etretat itself can stand for painting, both enervated and invigorated by tradition.

James has said that time “is one of the materials I use in the work, along with paint and canvas.  I’d say the work is partly made of time itself.”

David Cohen
Gallery Director, Curator

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