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Open Frequency

Open Frequency is a curated online programme presenting new developments in contemporary art. Selected artists are nominated by key curators, writers and artists from across the UK. Recently profiled Scotland-based artists include Katy Dove, Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Camilla Low, Toby Paterson and Hayley Tompkins.

Open Frequency is a programme area of Axis, the arts council funded leading online resource for the contemporary art community.

Merlin James

Glasgow-based artist Merlin James's shifting repertoire of imagery includes landscape, figuration (sometimes sexual), apparent abstraction, and transcription from earlier artists. A recent group of paintings also draws from 19th century documentary photographs. In 2007, Merlin James will have a solo show at the New York Studio School and will be one of the artists representing Wales at the Venice Bienalle 2007. He lives and works in Glasgow.

Graduating from the Royal College in 1986, James both anticipated and influenced certain cryptic, antiheroic trends in much current painting. However his work is set apart, not least by highly evolved formal and pictorial concerns and a complex relationship to tradition and innovation.

Oil; Acrylic on canvas; Merlin James; Sikkema Jenkins & Co
Acrylic on canvas, Merlin James

Neither a calculated, postmodern makeover of styles, nor a willfully naive post-Theory 'bedroom' painting, James' work engages the viewer with varying degrees of representation and comprehensibility; diversity of structure, texture, colour and painterly handwriting; play with convention; evocation of mood; control of association and allusion. The borderlines of what we can recognise in (and what we can recognise as) one of his paintings, is continually tested. Artist's intention and viewer's interpretation are repeatedly put into question, in works which nonetheless hazard meaning, beauty and an account of human experience of the world.

He states, 'I am usually irritated by debates about whether painting in general is alive or dead. But it’s true, in the later decades of the last century a lot of what was offered as new painting felt very stale. When it did look more lively it was often animating the limbs of a cadaver in a puppet-like dance of death.

Green, 1994 Merlin James; Courtesy Galerie les Filles du Calvaire Why is so much painting either academic or parodic? No doubt something truly new in art can only come as part of a more general shift of culture and consciousness. Perhaps by trying to make good paintings I’m doing my bit for the revolution. Anyway, I try to make new meaning'.

Reviewing James's show in New York, 2006, critic Roberta Smith writes, 'Judging by this engrossing 20-year survey, Merlin James has spent his career observing postmodern painting from a safe distance, downsizing and reconfiguring its main preoccupations to the intimate art of easel painting. His paintings blur abstract and representational; they hint at photographs, but also evoke Modernist masters. They revisit traditional subject matter like landscape and still life, but can also attend quite explicitly to sex. Always, they are hyperconscious of physical means.'

Recent works are highly illusionistic paintings of the sea. Deploying deep spatial illusionism and a gamut of painterly techniques (including palette-knifing, glazing, scumbling and sfumato), these paintings recuperate a tradition of sea painting that can be traced back through the pre-Impressionists, Courbet, early photographers such as Gustave Le Gray, and the often disregarded genre of 'marine painting'.

At one level the works are highly conscious exercises in pictorial convention and language, exploring the mechanisms of illusion, description and emotive association. Yet this is not a calculated deconstruction of artistic 'affect', a flirtation with kitsch, or a critique of the Sublime and Romantic nature mysticism.

Blue Window, 2006:Merlin James;Courtesy Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

The artist has commented: 'Seascape's emotive charge is unavoidable, and fraught with danger. I tend to downplay 'self-expression', the idea of my work as autobiographical or confessional. I'd sooner talk about art-historical precedent and experimentation with painting's language. Most of the artists I am interested in have painted the sea: Courbet, Delacroix, Lowry, Hartley, Nicholson, Hélion, Yeats. But the genesis of these paintings of mine is also on different beaches where I have walked in recent years. It's often been beaches close to cities: Brighton Beach and Coney Island in New York, the Bristol Channel in Cardiff, the Clyde estuary near Glasgow, Sandymount in Dublin. And yet you gaze a few feet from the shore, and you're right out there in the universal Sea. And then, yes, of course there are emotions, and the sea as embodying (yet indifferent to) human emotions, affairs and ideas.'

Merlin James was born in Cardiff in 1960 and studied at the Central School of Art, London (1979-82) and at the Royal College of Art, London (1983-86). Recent solo exhibitions include those at Sikkema, Jenkins and Co, New York, Kerlin Gallery, Dublin and Vitamin Arte Contemporanea, Turin. Recent group exhibitions include Things We Lost in the Fire, Transition Gallery, London, 2006, Seeing Things at Galleria Fabjbasaglia, Rimini and Direkte Malerei/Direct Painting Kunsthalle Mannheim [2004/05]. His work will be included in Faces of a Collection also at the Kunsthalle Mannheim.

Andrew Mummery Gallery, London, 2006
Prague Biennale, 2003

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