One of Merlin James’s most admirable traits as a painter is that he never—or almost never—repeats himself. He has no trademark look or “brand,” and his solo exhibitions often feel at first like group shows. Over four decades, the Welsh-born artist has produced mostly small- and medium-size works, including abstractions that range from painterly lyricism to assemblage-like constructions. The majority of the paintings, however, are figurative, with a wide array of subject matter—figures, landscapes, urban scenes, still-life arrangements, and meditative combinations thereof.
The eighteen pieces in the exhibition “River” at Sikkema Jenkins in New York were produced over the past three years and run the gamut technically and compositionally. James pays great attention to each work’s inner frame and bracing structure, which he builds himself. Several wholly abstract pieces—more like sculptural reliefs than paintings—comprise layers of translucent vinyl scrims, so that one looks through the work, as through superimposed panes of window glass. Thematically, however, the exhibition coalesced around a specific locale, the River Clyde, near the artist’s home and studio in Glasgow, where he has lived since 2004.
James, who studied at the Central School of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art in London, presented several riverscapes, including Bridge and River, Dredge, and The Window, which were among the highlights of the show. The last, a horizontal canvas nearly 5 by 7 feet, with slightly concave sides—an unusually large and complex composition for James—was one of the most compelling. With delicate brushwork and small, wispy patches of pale, translucent color, The Window depicts a rather idyllic river scene. Bifurcated by a tall, narrow tree, the picture features small boats floating languidly. A birdcage occupied by one red and one blue bird hangs in the right foreground. At left, on the far bank of the river, stylized human figures sit on swings. The image suggests a slice of life, although the ambiguous spatial relationships and dreamlike, romantic ambience foil any sense of realism.
Painted with feathery brushstrokes and diaphanous layers of crystalline color, the river views appear almost impressionistic, although they are not “scenic” in conventional terms. Never working en plein air or from photographs, James, also an accomplished art writer, produces these depictions in a windowless studio near the river. He conjures all the images from memory, including the portrait-like figure studies, which are particularly evocative and well realized. Painted on a shaped vertical canvas, with a slightly concave top and bottom, Figure shows a female nude facing forward, seated on a green platform against a creamy white wall. Centered on the canvas, the figure has a monumental presence, although James’s wistful brushwork, and the translucent gold-yellow band that shades the torso and much of the wall like a sheer silk veil, lends the image a poignant, understated sensuality.
Between the House and the Studio and Rosebush feature lone figures in intimate outdoor settings. The former shows a male figure in shorts and turquoise shirt reclining on a lounge chair in the foreground, against a high pink wall. Rosebush focuses on a female figure reclining on the lounge chair in the same setting, except that the walls are bright yellow, and a door that’s closed in the former painting is here ajar. Compositions of such similarity are rare for James, but not the nuanced tonal shifts and rarefied mood that is tender but hardly saccharine. With a certain aggressive intensity of focus and vision, James thwarts sentimentality, managing to unify the disparate works in “River” with a concisely expressed idealism.