The painter Merlin James (b.1960, Cardiff, UK) shifts fluently between different modes, from landscape, interior, and still life to figuration and abstraction. He is also a prolific writer on art, contributing to many publications, notably the Burlington Magazine. When I first encountered his paintings, I was struck by their ability to engage earnestly with the history of the art form while also pressing ahead. In his varied constructions and shifting surfaces, James considers each part of the canvas, including the stretcher, substrate, and framing device as fundamental elements of painting’s language.
James has worked in London, Wales, and New York at various points in his career, but for the past decade has been based out of a house and studio in Glasgow, where he co-founded the exhibition space 42 Carlton Place, mounting exhibitions of Prunella Clough, Serge Charchoune, Christina Ramberg, and Adrian Morris, among others. In the lead up to his next show at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., I visited Merlin James at his home studio to see the paintings in progress. The following is edited together from conversations in Glasgow and New York.
Louis Block (Rail): Since we’ve just looked at the paintings in the studio, let’s start by talking about place. There is sometimes an anonymous element in your work, maybe having to do with neutral titles, like Tree or Building, whereas this new work seems more specific.
Merlin James: Typically my work has tended towards anonymity, or if there’s specificity, it’s enigmatic. The viewer is probably not going to speculate on whether this is an object or person or place with a certain significance to me. The difference this time is, well, it’s the place where I live. It’s the house, and environs, the river in front of the house, and the different spaces. There’s a yard behind the house, then the studios, and the ground floor of the house is a showing space where we’ve put on the exhibitions. And then upstairs in the house are the living quarters, with the windows out onto the river.
Rail: The Clyde?
James: The Clyde. It’s the view I’ve had for the past ten years, almost. Carol [Rhodes] and I got the place in 2011. I might call the show River. Many of the paintings are that motif—the riverbank, with the poplar tree, the buildings on the far bank, the clock towers, bridges, and often the dredging vessel. One key painting in the show is titled Dredge.
Rail: So what is the reference and the process? Is there a sketching stage?
James: There’s no sketching or taking photographs out the window, there isn’t even any conscious making of mental notes for when I next go into the studio. (The studio is built on at the back of the house, without windows.)
Rail: So it’s a sustained image over time.
James: It’s a familiar remembered image, a cumulative memory, so it’s full of inaccuracies and approximations because I’m in the studio just thinking, okay, the church is about here, then the tree comes in front of it and then there’s another building here but that’s partly obscured by another tree…
And even painting a figure—because the other element in the show will be figure paintings (the occupants of the house, as it were)—even then I don’t have a figure in front of me when I paint. And I don’t use a photograph or a sketch. I might make drawings to sort of help remember what a figure looks like or how I want the position to be, but I more or less get in front of the canvas and start painting. I just try to constitute the figure and then make it believable to myself and make it real, bring it to life. It’s a kind of recuperation process or something.
Rail: Will they be all new paintings?
James: Yes, they will all be new, which is again unusual for me. Very often with shows I’m showing newly finished works with ones that go way back, because I often work on things and keep things for a long time. But this is work from just the last three or so years.
Rail: In 2000 and 2001, you made paintings based on 19th century photographs from the Fratelli Alinari firm in Italy. Is that series the only time you’ve worked directly from photographs?
James: Yes, it is. And even then, I certainly didn’t project them onto the canvas, square them up, or transfer them. I didn’t have them right there while I was working. I would look at an Alinari photograph and examine it, and then paint it from memory. As soon as you look at the canvas and take your eye off the photograph you’re into memory. Those works are good examples of images clearly less personal to me. They were of distant places and times, and sort of longing to belong.
Rail: In much of your work there is an idea of modesty, perhaps having to do with genre scenes.
James: I’m not sure that has changed so much. I still want to avoid portentousness or self-romanticizing. That also underlies my cautiousness about providing a back story. If in a press release, or in this interview, I even just say “Oh, that tree is the tree in front of the house where I live in Glasgow…” that already changes the way the viewer is invited to look.
The first of these river paintings was shown at Andrew Mummery’s project space in Glasgow, and the title of the exhibition was A View of the River Clyde at Glasgow, 2018. So it was playing on that convention of a topographical picture, an engraving you would find in a book. Again that’s an impersonalizing and genrefying description, but then that whole balance of the generic and the particular or personal is inherent. We had an event during that show where the poet Harry Gilonis read his translations from classic Chinese poems, about rivers very typically, and landscape views, and of course they’re all about partings and de-partings and places remembered and loss and loneliness and so on.
Rail: You’ve talked in other interviews about the negotiation between being the painter and stepping back and trying to see a painting as a viewer. Does specificity and “biography” start to impede that ability to separate?
James: It’s a classic dilemma for art criticism and aesthetic philosophy, whether the viewer is searching for the artist’s biography in a work of art. Should you go to the biography for background information, extra “evidence” in support of your experience of the work? I’ve tended to be against the biographical interpretation of works of art. With most of the art I’m moved by, I’m not looking at it primarily as a biographical document, of Mondrian or Morandi say, or even Munch, who’s thought of as very autobiographical, very confessional. The New Critics of literature, from the early 20th century, have been very important to me in this—their ideas of the “intentional fallacy” and the “biographical fallacy.” The brilliance of their readings of works came from freeing the work from the author, in that sense. I’m a big believer in that.
However, there is the famous case of William Empson’s late book Using Biography, where he does a sort of vault-face and says that in fact the author’s biography is crucial, is actually what the reader is trying to access through the work. (I remember talking about all this with R. B. Kitaj in London years ago. He was obsessed with these paradoxes.) And maybe I’ve been having a somewhat similar re-think myself. My last show at Sikkema was called Paintings for Persons and had a lot of works dedicated to certain people. So I was already asking some related questions there.
Nevertheless, I still don’t want to dictate the reading of my latest paintings by talking too much about, say, what I’ve been through in the last five years. I still think seeing art too much as a product of the biography of the artist risks closing down the reading and missing the richness of the work, or maybe reading into its meanings that aren’t demonstrably there.
Rail: My experience with the paintings as a viewer is that they seem generous, in terms of not having to come to them with specific references to be able to communicate with them. There’s an openness. Most people can relate to being in a landscape, being in an interior, a sexual situation. I think that’s what I mean by generous.
James: Maybe it’s most generous to withhold biography, and to let viewers bring their own, or bring a broader or more open and metaphoric kind of interpretation. Obviously some of these recent paintings are much less overt than others in terms of the imagery. Some of them are harder to read as representational images. Others are unusually illusionistic for me. That makes a difference as well in the possible readings. And these paintings with figures in them are somewhat new, these figure “compositions” you might say. The painting with the two almost-nude painters was a surprise. I had the blank canvas in the studio while I was working on something else. It was one of those situations where I had some excess paint on the brush and I just unloaded it onto the top edge of the canvas, and then it sat around for a couple more days, then I painted a face in the top right-hand corner and didn’t really think about it. From then on I’ve got a slight amnesia about painting that image. Normally I can remember making almost every mark of a painting, I can look at a mark on a painting from a long time ago and remember what was on the stereo at the time. But this painting, I’ve got hardly any memory of actually painting it.
Rail: Do you have a title yet?
James: I think it’s just called Two Figures. The foreground figure is like a puppet that’s actually being operated by the background figure. I could encourage viewers into a biographical reading by titling it in a way that suggests who those people “really are,” whatever that means. But recently I’ve been writing about a Chardin painting, A Lady Taking Tea (1735), and in that text I’ve been very careful about this question of who the woman was historically, whether she was somebody that Chardin knew or just a model. Again, that painting’s just called A Lady Taking Tea, it’s not called Portrait of Madame So-and-So. That’s been very much on my mind the whole time of doing these paintings. We might even use a passage from my text as part of the press release for the show. There are parallels with the figure in some of these paintings of mine—someone sitting, seen in profile.
But other artists are important precedents too for the paintings of the river, like Vermeer’s View of Delft (c. 1660–61), or Hobbema’s Haarlem Lock (c.1663–65) in the National Gallery in London.
Rail: I was reading your 1996 interview with Simon Wallis, and in talking about the challenge of being a contemporary painter, you said, related to painting being weighed down by history, “its potentially inhibiting history has to somehow be its strength.” I wondered what it is about painting’s history that must be reckoned with, that you’re thinking about.
James: My tradition happens to be a Western European tradition, from the 17th century onwards. That’s when I start to really feel as if painters are in the same world as me. I’m interested in painting earlier than that, and obviously the 16th century is amazing, but—
Rail: But that’s the beginning of when it becomes possible to empathize with the subject—
James: Yes, with the 17th century I start to feel as if it’s my world. Dutch, Spanish, and French, when still life painting gets going and when secular landscape and figuration really get going, separate from religion and aristocracy. Of course art was still very attached to all of that, and that’s supposedly a problem, that association with privilege and so on. But painting is not inherently implicated in that, more than any other art. The real burden is more because so much has been done so well, so brilliantly. The world doesn’t need more paintings, really. So I think I’m exhausted by the overproduction of art in general, and I dread just adding to that, to the amount of art in the world, just for the sake of it. I’m just trying to make paintings that feel as if they justify their place in the world.
Rail: It goes back to the idea of modesty, both in subject and in scale. I feel like it’s rare to consider the fact that a painting has to end up somewhere, being stored—the reality of that situation.
James: Exactly. These current paintings are probably the biggest I’ve ever made. I very rarely work on this scale. It’s small for a lot of contemporary art, but to me a six foot painting is huge. If I can’t pick it up myself and put it on the wall, that’s my limit. I’ve got to be responsible for it myself. I don’t want to have to get two people to come and move a painting for me.
Rail: I know you champion small work—
James: Yes, I do. Of course, it’s exhilarating to see big paintings when they’re great, it’s just that I do get very fatigued with gigantism of… you go around the galleries and a show will be 20 massive paintings in varying colors, but all essentially the same formula. I find it exhausting somehow. These days for a lot of artists it seems to be a default, and a formula—massive output, each new series.
Rail: And you’ve always done all the stretching and priming—
James: I think as soon as you cross over into some kind of production, well, I would lose something. I do everything myself, and that’s also a check on me going into some overdrive of production.
Rail: There is this pressure for linear progression in a painter’s career. But you hang on to old and new work, and in the studio it’s a mixture all up on the wall at the same time. It seems like a more cyclical kind of working. And the motifs recur throughout the work, returning years later.
James: Yes, and things don’t go out of date, it’s not like “that’s a series from two years ago, it’s finished. We already showed it…” I’ll even put student work into a show. Not because I think everything that I do is great—almost the opposite. I’m not necessarily much further forward than I was when I was 24. [Laughter.] I’m still dealing with the same problems, it’s a continuous kind of process. But I’m not 24 any more of course, and all these formal and painterly and imagistic and semantic things in the work, things that might have seemed like tropes, well I hope they were never “merely” tropes, and that they build into a language that articulates real personal experience.
Rail: Talking of your student work, can you say something about your experience at school in London in the ’80s, and the art scene there?
James: At the end of the ’70s, when I’d just come to London, the feeling was that things were quite stale in painting, quite moribund. There was a lot of tail-end formalist/Minimalist American style, Greenberg style, still a lot of people painting color fields with masking tape, and even tail-end Abstract-Expressionist stuff. Then also there was the School of London: Auerbach, Kossoff, Freud—humanistic, existentialist figuration. So when I saw someone like Adrian Morris, it seemed to be in a territory that was very different, that was interesting. It was isolated individuals, not tendencies, that seemed promising. Prunella Clough was another inspiration, and Sidney Nolan.
I got to the Royal College in ’83. By then we were getting the Neo-Expressionist thing, the transavantgarde thing from Italy—this short-lived period of big figurative referential painting. Salle and Schnabel were big from America, and Clemente, Kiefer, Lupertz, Baselitz, Penck. I didn’t relate to that much either.
Rail: What about the push away from painting?
James: That was another thing, I was just talking about the painting scene. But yes, conceptualism was very strong in the ’70s, and there were schools where painting was marginalized. When I very first went to art school I was enamored of Duchamp and I probably bought the post-painting view, that it was at some sort of end. In ’78, before I started the degree course, I did things like an installation with a can of paint that poured from six feet high into a can of paint below, and it was probably supposed to be about the death of painting. But that was a momentary adolescent dalliance, and I quite quickly realized that I wanted the physicality inherent to painting.
Rail: I wanted to talk about the materiality as well, the surface texture, especially with the collaged elements and the hair mixed into the paint. Is there a consistent source for the hair?
James: It’s my hair, I suppose, and my partner’s hair, I’ve kept hair from when we had haircuts. [Laughter.] I keep lots of crap in the studio, hair and fur and sawdust. If I sweep the studio floor and put the dirt into a pan it might end up in paint, or I sieve it. There’s lots of stuff mixed into the paint that is not normal. You could make much of that, and say “my God, the artist’s own DNA is in the work,” or “the artist actually mixed his partner’s hair into the work, and every substance of his home and studio, that’s incredibly emotive.” Or you could say it’s just substances that are available. [Laughter.]
Rail: And the “finish”—if you want to call it that—is never really sensuous in the way you’d expect some painting to be.
James: I’m quite resistant to, say, a kind of lyricism or easy sensuality or luxuriance of paint as a material, an “expressive medium.”
Rail: Leaving the history of the object itself in there to be read versus hiding the struggle with it… But then some paintings don’t look nearly as worked over as others.
James: Sometimes they’re quick, sometimes they’re slow and a big struggle. Sometimes there’s been a big struggle but it’s not where you think, like the black painting (Night, 2018–19), the big struggle was making the frame somehow, or getting the frame right, but then the paint on the surface was very quick. They’re all about letting the raw material be seen to be in the process of transforming into… not into the image exactly, but into the work of art. Once you put a frame on a painting that’s a kind of declaration. In theory, it’s a declaration that the painting is now finished, can be declared to be a work of art. It can have a frame put on it. Which is of course not how it works, but that’s the convention.
Rail: I’m interested in knowing more about the structural decisions, how the paintings get built up.
James: Well it often starts earlier than the application of any paint. I consider the painting started when I start making the stretcher really, even though I’ve usually not preconceived at that point anything about what the painting is going to be, and I might make a few stretchers at once, like a little stock of stretchers. But more often I just make one and that’s the start of the work.
Rail: So the size comes before the image?
James: Yes, usually. I may have a notion of what I want to do on it, but I may have a completely open mind. And then, how thick the timber is, and all sorts of details about how I make it, already start to dictate the character of it. Then picking the kind of fabric that I’m going to stretch is significant as well. In some ways it’s completely contingent and pragmatic, if I’ve got a lot of certain weight of cotton duck, or linen, or hessian. That decision dictates a lot—as soon as you stretch the fabric over the stretcher it’s already got a lot of character. Then I go straight to acrylic paint of some sort, but I might coat the whole surface or not. That decision might be to do with anticipating what image is going to emerge. But things change quite radically in most of the paintings. The black painting was all about making the frame really, and the frame was a huge struggle. It’s made of plexi and wood and funny materials. All the frames are very odd—sort of funny salvaged material, and they’re made fairly crudely with these simple miter saws. I work on the frame and the painting at the same time—I don’t make a distinction. The physical making is sort of everything, dictates everything, more than the other way around. Rather than my setting out with something that needs making or saying or depicting. It’s much more as if the means are the momentum. A huge amount of the meaning comes through how it’s made.
Rail: Especially with the paintings of the swing figures, where the hanging mechanism becomes the image. With all the transparent frame paintings, like those two shows ago at Sikkema Jenkins, the actual material fact of the painting and then what is represented on the surface, there’s a metaphoric connection between them. You could say that the transparent frame paintings become windows, for example.
James: That’s right, there’s that interior/exterior dialogue going on. I’ve often got plexiglass in the structure of the frame, so where you expect to have a glazed frame that you look through to see the painting, the glass is displaced into the frame structure, and you look through the frame and see the wall behind it, and there are holes in the painting as well. The windows in the paintings are also like eyes actually, sort of looking back at the viewer or the world. There’s a feeling the buildings are looking.
Rail: We had talked before about art-form specificity, and you being very firmly a painter. Even though there are sculptural, built, three-dimensional elements, they’re in the language of painting. You are interested in pushing and exploring those boundaries of painting as an art-form without necessarily crossing over. Can we define what those boundaries are, what actually begins on the other side? Maybe it’s not necessarily sculpture. You might be equally thinking about literature, or music.
James: That’s right. I’m skeptical of the idea of “post-medium” or medium non-specificity. Although of course art-forms can’t be defined and demarcated precisely, and they have to keep changing and being tested and explored, and yes there’s cross fertilization. I’m into different sorts of art-forms, as anybody might be. I think about poetry a lot and think about the analogies between what goes on in a poem or a song or novel, and what goes on in a painting. But there’s something quite useful about the clear gap between them all as art-forms. They each have their own culture. Whereas the mixing up of forms in mixed-medium or post-medium fine art is not so intriguing to me. Thinking of art as one big undifferentiated field seems like generalizing, as if scientists were to practice all kinds of science at once.
Rail: There are plenty of distinctions, types, within painting, and within your paintings. How often do the paintings change categories? Maybe, for example, a landscape turns into an erotic scene.
James: That happens all the time. Things change completely, sometimes jumping from type to type, but sometimes morphing.
Rail: In a way the shapes themselves become motifs, not the objects.
James: Yes, that’s right. There’s a morphology that I’m not necessarily looking to resolve each time into types—an erotic one, an architectural one, an abstract one, for example. I might even be resisting that to an extent. Everything can turn into something else. That vertical oval shape, that has been in the work forever, it can either just be itself, as a sort of not-abstract-not-figurative configuration, or it can emerge within imagery (a tree, a bird…). And these dots or spots or circles, they can be a clock face or a physical hole in the canvas, a porthole, an eye, a knot in wood. So it’s all quite fluid.
Rail: Where do the swinging figures come from in the two transparent paintings, among others?
James: Those paintings depict toys from India that are in the house, in the window from which that view of the river can be seen. They are on the windowsill, and beyond them there’s the view to the river and bridges and so on. One is a little tin clockwork toy of two children, and they swing back and forth on the swings and the hands go round on a clock. The other one is a very cheap plastic cage with two birds hanging on little threads. They’re a few rupees, these kind of toys.
Rail: Are you thinking about art historical precedents for that kind of figure? Fragonard, for example, with the swinging figure.
James: The emblem-like quality of something like a swing or a birdcage is so evident. They’re obviously metaphorical things. A birdcage is inevitably about freedom and enclosure or entrapment, and these swinging children with the hands of the clock turning, they’re very, if not allegorical, potentially symbolic. At the same time they’re toys. Chardin, again, has the painting of the child and the spinning top, or the girl with the shuttlecock, the house of cards. Objects are resonant, vanitas still lifes as well—hourglasses or candles. These pictures of mine are a combination of still life and landscape, with the landscape beyond the window and the still life in the window.
Rail: Is your idea of success in the paintings and of finish in the paintings shifting at all?
James: I don’t think so. One might have expected that it would, because if these paintings are more personal or whatever, if there’s a kind of emotional content for me greater or more specific than in the past, you might expect the way I’m judging them to change. Which might be a dangerous thing, because they could start being therapeutic for me, and I could start mistaking their efficacy as therapy for their merit as works of art. That’s precisely the sort of anxiety that surrounds this whole question of biography.
Rail: There is also the question of viewership, since they’re being shown so far away from where they’re made and what they’re depicting.
James: Yes, Andrew Mummery’s space, where we showed Dredge, is a couple streets from here, close to the motif, and the audience were mostly very familiar with the topography. This dredger is a familiar sight on the river, and it’s painted that bright green yellow. People know it and recognized it. I think there’s even a somber association, because people jump in the river (there are often bunches of flowers tied to these rails later), and the lifeboat and emergency services come out and often the dredger seems to appear then as well. I don’t know if it’s actually used with recovering bodies, but I think it probably is. There is something somber about the dredger, pushing its barge ahead of it, into which it drops what it dredges up.
Rail: Maybe mood is what we’re circling around. Without the biographical, without the familiarity of the motif, barring all of that, maybe that is the thing that the viewer can identify with.
James: I think people do get a mood off these paintings, and they get that it’s not exuberant. It’s not depressed but it’s elegiac, people are getting that. But even then, there can be alternative takes. There is a painting that I think of as the full moon painting, a lunar painting, but people sometimes think that it’s the sun. In my head that’s a sort of nighttime painting with a very bright moon. In Glasgow we have nights in the summer where the sky is light almost all night. And this painting has a very grey, milky kind of light.
Then some people find the current imagery charming, or whimsical, rather than mournful.
Rail: What about humor or irony? Maybe we could talk about that in the earlier paintings.
James: Definitely, and I think there’s humor all the way through, hopefully, of various types. I think wit in art is essential. The term “irony” is way overused, and used as a pejorative or as a synonym for cynicism or parody, but irony as a form of humor, almost, is absolutely axiomatic for painting. The creation of an image or an illusion in a two-dimensional medium, for one thing, is a sort of inherently ironic paradox almost from the beginning, and the notion of content within a container that has actually zero space to contain except an illusionistic space… And then there’s the condition of time, the stasis of painting, the fact that painting is a non-moving medium but it can—or has to—allude to time. Precisely because it is sort of outside time, there’s an ironic relationship to our condition experiencing the painting in time… So, there’s all of those things. Of course they’re not side-splittingly hilarious issues. [Laughter.] But there can be actual funniness too, funny ha-ha-ness. Somebody laughed at one of my paintings recently, of a baggage carousel. I was pleased.
Rail: Lots of your paintings have stuck in my mind, but for some reason the tiny one of the dredger just by itself (Dredging, 2018) sticks out. It totally operates on that somber level, but maybe the reason it’s staying with me is because of the scale. It can also be a little funny. It’s like a little toy. Something, too, about the insignificance against the forces of nature.
James: Yes, the pathos. Pathos is close to humor isn’t it? Pathos is both tragic and comic, and also that dredger is painted this bright yellow green, these colors of, I don’t know…
Rail: Like a Tonka toy.
James: Yes, so that painting and the Indian toys and others, they have the toys sharing the picture plane with the dredger and the buildings and cranes across the river of about the same scale, so the real things and the toys become the same. I guess that’s something art often does, in different ways—makes the real artificial and the artificial real.
Rail: Given the current crisis, the show has been postponed, and the work is still with you in Glasgow. Do you have further reflections on the now finished body of paintings?
James: It’s very strange indeed. I’m emailing this from that same window, with that view of the river. The odd car or jogger is going by on the far side, but there’s hardly a soul out there, which echoes a bit how unpopulated my paintings of that scene are, and how that affects the atmosphere. Plus I’m sort of stuck here in the house, a bit as we were when I was first making these paintings, actually.
Downstairs the paintings are all stacked around the walls, where they’ve been waiting to be picked up for New York. We don’t know when that will be now. Maybe it’s good at least that the show didn’t open only to get overtaken by these events (lots of artists have suffered that, of course). And meanwhile, yes, I have some more time now to take in the paintings, on their home ground. Some people here are able to get a preview, too. For example some friends, who know the back story, are seeing the paintings. Before they go out and mean whatever they mean in the wider world. I think some of the intimacy will survive.