The Subverted Landscapes of Artist Merlin James

Merlin James, ‘Buildings’, 2012, mixed media. Courtesy the artist and P420, Bologna

In a recent exhibition – glimpsed between one lockdown and another – his artworks divest themselves of canvas altogether

In a brief, wondrous interlude between one lockdown and another, Merlin James was able to travel from Glasgow to Bologna to install his show at P420, and I managed to catch it just before it was shut down. The exhibition is small, unassuming and engrossing, featuring eight works spanning 15 years, modestly sized and displaying a variety of styles – hints of James McNeill Abbott Whistler, Francis Bacon, Serge Charchoune, Giorgio Morandi. There is a familiarity you cannot quite grasp: that building you think you may recognise or the coastline you may have driven along.

Merlin James, Audience, undated. Courtesy the artist and P420, Bologna.

As the works draw you in, slightly off details emerge. In Audience (undated), heavily applied hues of black, brown and mauve acrylic outline an audience watching a stage, as two small dots of white and red stand out against the darkness – lights, perhaps, or performers. Leaning in closer, you realise that James has covered large parts of the small canvas in human hairs, some sticking out from the canvas. In Coast (2000–2), a dark, elegiac coastal scene is almost jarred by what looks like a patch, as though the artist repaired an old canvas before painting on it.

James’s subject matter – mostly landscapes, buildings or partial figures – is often subverted in these subtle, mischievous ways, diverting our attention from the subject to the matter itself, the physical act of painting, and back again. Even the diminutive size of the paintings evokes the easel they have been painted on. James’s love for his medium is all-encompassing: he considers each part of the canvas as a fundamental element of the language of painting.

Merlin James, House and Cloud, 2010. Courtesy the artist and P420, Bologna.

My favourite works are his ‘transparencies’ or ‘frame paintings’, which divest themselves of canvas altogether, exposing the wooden stretcher and covering it in a fine, transparent polyester. In House and Cloud (2010), he has carved and painted parts of the bars in green and white – it almost looks like some kind of insect resting on a flower – and covered it in fine mesh, onto which he has painted a just-about-discernable house and cloud. Buildings (2012) takes transparency one step further: James working on the stretcher frame itself, carving a fantastical little building onto it. His works are that rare thing: paintings that, in a time of perpetual distraction, avoid the heavy-handed or pretentious, and retain the ability to transfix.

Merlin James, P420 Gallery, Bologna, 25 September – 23 December

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