James’ subject matter is so broad that it seems incidental to his painterly exploration – ranging from abstracts on transparent fabric displaying the frame and stretcher, to land and seascapes, to sex, to interiors, to ‘portraits’, to works incorporating tiny handcrafted houses. Seen through contemporary art eyes some subjects feel clichéd. A scene of waves breaking on the shoreline is what one expects from a Sunday painter. Individual paintings can come across as unashamedly sentimental, which I can’t help but admire, standing in defiance to a world full of cynicism. Yet the range of imagery, from abstract to abstracted to representational and figurative, feels a part of that knowing coolness as well. James works the same motif years later and I wonder what drives him to return to similar imagery time and again. In an article from 2008/09, Sherman Sam claims that he choses imagery for its timelessness quality. The same article quotes James from a 2004 exhibition catalogue as saying that his ‘works … are in the tradition of Western easel painting … [which is] admired for their formal interest and beauty; for how they address the viewer’s wider experience in the world; and for their particular contribution to the art of their field.’
Though the shows at Parasol and at KW Institute have a very different feel, the overriding impression I got on seeing both was one of melancholy. I think that this comes from the colours James’ uses. His palette consists largely of secondary and tertiary colours. Mauves and purples, faded greens, muddy browns, sea greys and some orange. Occasionally the muddy and pastel shades are broken with strokes of primary coloured brightness. His paintings largely show a world of overcast skies and dim electric lights. In such they can’t easily be attributed to season nor time of day; light and time seem to me to be frames of reference.
The scale of the paintings, modest and easy to imagine in a domestic setting, add to the sense of melancholy. They do not shout with ambition. Apparently the way in which James works varies, with some paintings taking a few hours and others being reworked over weeks, or even years when one looks at the span of dates on some labels. I don’t think I could accurately tell one from the other, they all seem to have a similar level of (in)completeness. The handling of paint varies, at times transparent or glazed, at others in thick impasto layers. But the art of their execution remained largely hidden to me, with the paintings showing neither the energy nor the theatre of the artist’s studio. Theirs is a quieter expression.
I feel that his overriding concern is about the form of painting, its function as a window on the world. This may of course be me overlaying my frame of reference, my interests, on his work. What I was drawn to was the layering of canvas, creating a patchwork surface, the piercings to reveal the wall behind, the transparent materials used in some works and the collage or tiny models added to paintings or their frames, all of which break the illusion of what we are looking at. I was also intrigued, but equally repulsed, by the painted surface of works incorporating body hair, presumably from the artist, and the dust, debris and filth of his studio. Of the works on show at the KW Institute about half of the works have some intrusion which disrupts the regular form of the canvas, although all a labeled as being ‘acrylic and mixed media’ (my emphasis).
For someone who works in the tradition of easel painting I find it interesting that James is not particularly interested in the materiality of paint. Acrylic paint comes readymade and easy to use, but has a tradition in art that extends for just over 50 years. Acrylics can produce similar effects to oil paint which, without looking at the labels is what I would have presumed he worked in, but without the associated mess, drying times and conservation problems for artists painting directly onto unprimed canvas. And so for me, James is a painter who does not look to engage completely in the history of the act of painting, but rather in its formal concerns. As such, I share a common area of interest with Merlin James but take a different approach to exploring it, with the physical process being for me the dominant concern. I don't think I like his work per se but having taken time to look and try to understand it I appreciate its complexity, and I know that it is the ambiguity of the work - particularly the breadth of subject matter - which prompted me to look and think harder. More shows which niggled me.