MERLIN JAMES Frame Paintings


Louise Hopkins, “First-comers” (2010). Watercolor, pencil and correction fluid on magazine page. 9 7/8 x 8 1/8 inches.
Louise Hopkins, “First-comers” (2010). Watercolor, pencil and correction fluid on magazine page. 9 7/8 x 8 1/8 inches.

Since 1995-1996, when the often plain buildings in his work became a metonym for the physical thing we call a painting, Merlin James has mounted a compelling, well-thought-out challenge to the commonly accepted narrative that, historically speaking, painting was a stand-in for a window (concerned with three-dimensional space) that became a surrogate wall (concerned with the two-dimensional surface). Instead of aligning himself with this received idea, and concentrating all his attention on the surface, James advances that a painting is a man-made structure capable not only of enduring the vicissitudes of reality, but also of preserving, and to some degree protecting, that which has been scorned, rejected, and neglected—that is to say, anything kicked to the curb or thrown under the bus carrying happy postmodernists to the academy of the future. Highly articulate, and well-known for his championing of artists as diverse and neglected as Jean Hélion and Serge Charchoune, James is the most brilliant and playful contrarian of his generation, which is to say he is deadly serious but never shrill or boring. A playful contrarian—this conjunction alone should suggest the levels of unlikely contradiction the artist knowingly embraces.

In this exhibition of eight Frame Paintings, all but one of which are dated 2010, James extends his claim that a painting is a building (or housing structure) by engaging with the wooden support, both stretcher and frame. Using semi-transparent sheets of nylon or polyester that he attaches to the front of a wooden stretcher, James effectively makes a shallow box in which the frame, front surface (exterior), wooden structure (interior), and gallery wall are not only visible, but also integral to the painting. And within the thoroughness of his hands-on approach, James finds lots of ways to be inventive and playful. If Robert Ryman, who is equally thorough in his consideration of the means and support, wants to keep returning to the question of how to paint, James deliberately takes the exact opposite approach; he wants to find out what he can paint, and is willing to court almost any possibility, no matter how outré or kitschy.

In “Bamboo Frame” (2010), the chunky bamboo frame evokes not only Chinoiserie and the age of Whistler and the Impressionists, but it also inflects the abstract vastness the artist is able to evoke through the size of the house he places behind the polyester surface, near the middle of the far right bottom stretcher bar. A lone cloud floats diagonally opposite the house, in the upper left corner. It’s as if someone understood Chinese painting to be the kind done on mirrored glass and imported to the West to satisfy the demand for all things Eastern. And yet, however close James veers toward this kitsch art form, he also manages to make it into something fresh, sharp, and fanciful. In fact, it is James’s ability to be fanciful that is one of his enduring strengths. He recognizes the deep-seated human need to believe in the far-fetched, and how, as in the work of Antoine Watteau, it can be suffused with an air of melancholy, a sense of the futility of life.

Merlin James, “House and Cloud” (2010). Wood, nylon, silk, acrylic. 28 x 22 inches.
Merlin James, “House and Cloud” (2010). Wood, nylon, silk, acrylic. 28 x 22 inches.

In “House and Cloud,” James attaches a green and white ellipse to each side of the crossbar. On the right, he attaches a diminutive house made out of wood scraps and touched with paint. A greenish cloud of coagulated paint floats near the top edge of the nylon surface, punctuated by a crusty, yellow circular blob. The painting becomes a window through which we see a house, supposedly in the distance, though, of course, it is just on the other side of the nylon. The delicacy and restraint of the painting never becomes redundant because the little bit of paint the artist has used has a visceral presence. From the yellow silk to the green and white ellipse to the unstained wood stretcher, every color becomes part of the viewer’s experience. James doesn’t separate the tactile from the visual.

James’s knowledge of painting extends far beyond well-documented art historical examples and includes folk art, outsider art, forgotten and neglected artists, and local styles and materials. I have the sense that he wants nothing less than to revive subjects long considered exhausted and irretrievable, such as a fishing boat floating on a calm, sunlit sea, or a squat house alone in the marshes. His use of paint and hair—they are sometimes combined—introduces a weird and provocative current of feeling into the work, at once sexual and deathly. The paint is matted, conveying a sense of decay amidst the straightforward yet delicate austerities of these paintings, with their evocations of idyllic life. The immediacy and wackiness of the Frame Paintings should not distract us from their complexity and mute despondence. Over the past decade, James has become one of the most ambitious and accomplished artists of his generation. He has done so by merging intellectual acuity and hands-on labor in ways that are unorthodox, but always to the point—that one of painting’s purposes is to protect that which society tramples over in its eagerness to be fashionable.

Louise Hopkins, who first gained attention in Glasgow and London in 1996, draws and paints on printed surfaces, ranging from modern maps and magazine pages to furnishing fabric and full-page comics. Each surface both inspires, and demands, a different response. On furnishing fabric, the kind used to upholster a couch, for example, she can work on the back or the front, with each mark obliterating as well as mimicking whatever visual information has been incorporated into the cloth backing, be it a lush floral pattern or a figurative scene. The deep browns and reds of the triptych, “Untitled (931)” (2007), endows a scene of leaves and berries with a moody somberness, while clustered lines and shifting patterns reveal the repetitive construction of the image. It occurred to me that in the upholstery patterns one can glimpse the madness at the core of civilization.

The relationship between artist and pre-existing surface is a loaded one. On one hand, Hopkins devotes herself to working within the limitations set by the fabric’s design, indexing each printed mark with her own. On the other hand, she eradicates the design, line by line. What emerges is, literally and metaphorically speaking, darker and more insistent, an act of fidelity and destruction. Drawing has become, in Hopkins’s work, redrawing, bringing to mind graffiti and doodling. If this were all the artist did, it would come across as purely obsessive, which wouldn’t be enough to sustain the viewer’s interest and anticipation.

The strength of Hopkins’s work materializes in the varied responses she makes to her chosen surfaces, even when they are of the same family, such as maps. In “Black Sea” (2003), which was not in the exhibition, she blacked out all of a map except the words “Black Sea,” “Red Sea,” “White Sea,” “Yellow Sea,” and “Greenland.” The fact that the word “blue” is nowhere to be found adds another level of meaning to her act of defacing and covering over. In another “map” drawing, Hopkins carefully effaced the ink and then redrew the information, with the result suggesting that the viewer is looking at an earthquake rippling across France, where it borders Spain. The bond between destruction and transformation, making and disrupting, is one theme the artist finds different, imaginative, and thought-provoking ways to return to.

In her “maps,” Hopkins makes drawing and reading indivisible, as well as demonstrates that reading is a deeply individual act, which is a particularly Western understanding of the relationship between reader and text. We do not read the same things the same way, a lesson we never seem to learn. In this, she shares something with her peer, Udomsak Krisanamis. The difference is that Krisanamis appears to have gotten stuck in one kind (or means) of reading, and has been recycling his work for the past decade, so that it has become increasingly decorative and self-referential, while Hopkins has continued to push herself in different ways. She is willing to make less complex works, knowing that they might point toward more mind-boggling possibilities.

In “First-comers” (2010), Hopkins applied watercolor and acrylic ink on a magazine ad for rolling carts and workbenches, transforming these undistinguished pieces into animals, such as an elephant, camel, lion, and horse. Reading, in this case, becomes fantastic and hallucinatory, reminiscent of childhood when a box can become a castle. In “16 Cabinets” (2008), a snake has slithered down, row by row, swallowing the furniture (the way a boa constructor consumes a pig, whole). The artist’s willingness to be playful, and even slight, should not be seen as a sign of her being less ambitious, but as an attempt to extend her ability to read the world in all its printed manifestations.

This exhibition of five works done between 2007 and 2010 suggests the range of Hopkins’s project, but not the fullness of it. It was a tantalizing peek of an artist who has clearly made good on her early promise, and who knows she has to push her work into other dimensions.


John Yau


JUL-AUG 2010

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