Painting as Signal Box: Merlin James in Berlin
Report from… Berlin
Merlin James. Signal Box at Kunste-Werle, Berlin
July 19 to November 10, 2013
“Outside the charmed circle of the painter’s admirers,” Julian Bell wrote fourteen years ago, “the mark left by the creative action becomes as indefinite in meaning as a stone . . . . it simply is.” (What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art ) Bell expresses the much-discussed contemporary consensus: the act of painting has become problematic. Ambitious painting employing figurative references has become self-consciously skeptical about the very process of meaningful representation making. Whether artists create pastiches of prior pictures, allude to photography, or set their representations within brackets: in any case, they acknowledge this concern. Certainly Merlin James does. Originally train signaling was done mechanically, requiring that the signalman walk to set the switches in the required position for each train that passed. To identify James’s paintings as signal boxes is to employ a suggestive metaphor: Just as a signal on the railway switches trains from one track to another, so, I suppose each James painting, playing with the constituent elements of this art form, switches the viewer from one manner of visual thinking to another. That, at least, is one way to parse his metaphor.
Merlin James is a painterly artist who can depict almost everything. Indeed, one painting, the magnificent Signal Box (2005) depicts a signal box. He paints banal subjects from the countryside- Bird, Branch, House (2010), Sheep (2007), A Sail Boat (2005). He does very close up erotic scenes – Sex (White) (2004) is one. He shows people at the movies in Cinema (2005/13). He even has one painting with an old master source, After Poussin (1995). Most of his paintings are almost small enough to fit in your carry on luggage. But occasionally he works on a larger scale; Building on a Cliff (2011) is almost a meter wide. Some of his subjects are frankly mysterious- so far as I can tell Undated (undated) is an abstraction. But the more straightforward Figure on the Shore (undated), shows a man on a horse on the beach; Red Buildings (2002/07) is an abstracted image of red buildings; and a number of recent paintings, Screen (2012) is an example, show the back of picture frames. James doesn’t paint everything. He paints nature (including man-made structures), animals and bodies viewed close up. But he doesn’t show street scenes, Impressionist-style cityscapes, or the industrial products beloved by Pop painters. Just from looking at their subjects, it would be hard to date his paintings.
One good way to understand James is to compare him to another masterful artist who also works small, Thomas Nozkowski. Where Nozkowski’s paintings, always untitled, have their starting point in nature, they function visually as abstractions, because their sources have become indeterminate. James, by contrast, presses towards abstraction but usually the figurative references of his pictures, which mostly are titled, are identifiable. And where Nozkowski often employs flat areas of bright color, James tends to use a dark palette, with intense color. John Ruskin has a theory to the effect that painters should respect nature, because nothing they could invent, so he says, could possibly be as interesting. (He is defending Turner.) In their very different ways, Nozkowski and James both validate this theory. “As unitary practice, as institution, as internal coherence,” Bell says, “painting has for the time being played itself out.” True enough—but James’ art shows how much is possible in this difficult situation.