Selected Works, 1985–2005
1985 was a bad time for painters of a certain sensibility. One had, on one side, the rhetorical bombast and dubious values of neo-expressionism, and on the other, something much smarter but distressingly cold called Neo-Geo. To top it off, some lunatic took a knife and a liter of sulfuric acid to Rembrandt’s “Danae” in The Hermitage. What was a humanist to do? Merlin James’ survey of paintings at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. describes one escape route from the postmodern impasse.
For twenty years James has made small, stubbornly anti-esthetic easel paintings that strive for meaning and integrity as much as they threaten our understanding of what those qualities look like. Aping the Sunday painter, James renders banal subjects in a vocabulary of palette-knife swipes, daubs of bright acrylic paint, sketchy outlines, and ochre washes that call to mind the most jarring and unpredictable results of amateur painting. Their fastidiously aggressive facture—the thin stretchers, mottled acrylic surfaces, lumpy embedded debris, rough canvasses, and occasional jagged perforations—grounds the work in the materiality of painting as much as it signals the inability of a formalist vocabulary to fully account for James’ project.
The tone of the enterprise is elegiac and often morose. It’s also laced with evocations of an embattled, occult legacy of painting, a resistance movement to the juggernaut of received art history. “Flower Piece”(2001) is a small squarish painting with a crudely painted bouquet floating against a dark, textured ground and casually painted primary color borders. It nods towards George Braque’s murky, inscrutable post-cubist work as well as Mondrian’s alleged penchant for painting still lives in private while publicly espousing pure plasticism. “Old Building on a Hill” (1999-2003) is composed of equal parts John Constable highlights and Max Ernst frottage. “Sex” (2004) strips the luster off a cropped porn image, rendering hands, penis, vagina, and breasts in thin, muddy greys that emphasize the leaden materiality of paint and flesh against the cool disembodiment of the photograph.
The closest James comes to exuberance is “French Window” (1996), a straightforward view through a yard to the side of a house, where two purple silhouettes hover inside the titular window. Two trees in the foreground are hinted at by bright, fluid streaks of color moving over a light grey ground. The particularity of the scene—the way its composition and presentation veers eccentrically away from the standardized model for plein air painting—opens up a compelling, provisional space for the work in which questions of intentionality are suspended without being ignored.
James’s case dramatizes the difficulty of painting in a way that affirms the medium’s value without turning its back on history. He suggests that the war against vacuity can only be fought one painting at a time. When he’s successful, the weight of his critically self-conscious position dissolves in a revelatory moment, and the most unlikely of objects becomes simple and profound. When he’s not, a viewer is left with too little in the way of aesthetic interest to justify the time spent deciphering the work. It’s dismaying how severe James’s position appears in a painting culture where engagement and criticality sound like such outmoded terms, obstinately somber in a carefree time. In 2006 he looks like the only soldier left on a battlefield; we’d like to think it’s because the war is almost over, not that everyone else walked away from the fight. —Roger White
Glitching Time and Time-Based MediaBy Charlotte Kent
OCT 2022 | Art and Technology
Time is a socio-technological system with profound organizing qualities that feels, these days, exceedingly oppressive. Theres never enough time! For anything. Calendars are the earliest containing device with the purpose of determining a social order; the history of the Roman calendar reveals the role of international and national politics that play out across each new temporal infrastructure. Our temporal orders have been designed through the global proclamation of Greenwich Mean Time in 1884 by colonial empires, the apocalyptic anxiety provocations of the doomsday clock established in 1947, the insistent instant-ness of digital time since the 1970s exacerbated by strings of video chat meetings of the last couple years, and the frenetic branding of our social/professional lives demanded by transnational corporate technologys mediation of everyone and everything, all the time. Its a mess.
Pamela Sneed: ABOUT timeBy Jillian McManemin
JUL-AUG 2022 | ArtSeen
If you have any interest in poetry, you probably know Pamela SneedBlack, lesbian, radical poet, and one of the infamous Grand Dames of the downtown scene. Her stage presence is formidable and her voice, revolutionary. Her 2020 book Funeral Diva published by City Lights Books looks back on her experiences during the AIDS Crisis while making correlations to COVID-19, and the ongoing layered impacts of racism, homophobia, and political brutality. In ABOUT time at Laurel Gitlen, Sneeds visual practice merges with her poetic one, creating an exhibition that is fiercely outspoken, experimental, and personal.
Spencer Longo’s TIMEBy Josh Schneiderman
SEPT 2022 | Art Books
The book uses unstapled pages from Time magazine as the bases of its collages. It shows what it feels like to live in a crumbling empire, in an era widely regarded as the end of history.
Raqs Media Collective: HUNGRY FOR TIMEBy Klaus Speidel
DEC 21-JAN 22 | ArtSeen
While some visitors deemed the exhibition refreshing or exciting, a majority also voiced anger, disappointment, and incomprehension in the visitors book of the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, the paintings gallery of Viennas art academy, in the face of Hungry for Time, an exhibition curated by Raqs Media Collective from New Delhi.