Merlin James @ CCA

Merlin James' major career-spanning exhibition in its very form experiments with the conventions of the late stage painter, and continues to enquire into the possibilities of the medium

Review by Holly Gavin | 05 Feb 2016

Long Game is the first large-scale exhibition of Glasgow-based painter Merlin James in the city. The show displays a large body of work from the 1980s to present.  Though a painting show, drawings, prints, and small wooden model buildings also feature.

With little in the way of chronological classification, explanations about the paintings on show are also limited. Equally, there’s an effacing curation that spreads attention equally across interiors, rural landscapes, seascapes, sexual intimacy and geometric compositions.

Throughout these works, there is no protective reflective glass and those on canvas are left unframed. All the better to see the layers, underpaintings, and edits. Although muted in colour and modest in size, even the larger paintings are neither overwhelming nor particularly conspicuous.

A modest stripping away continues into the recent ‘frame paintings’. These wooden frames surround stretched sheer fabric revealing underlying stretchers. In some, there’s again a kind of nude intimacy, shared too with the paintings of bedrooms.  Or there’s more of a close skirmish like in Tree and building (1990). When the canvas is cut to reveal the wall behind it, the shadowed base layer jostles with the intensity of his dark marks.  

There is a commitment to paint’s physical materiality, but also as a means of representation. In certain instances this is manifested more formally in line, colour, or subject matter. As is the case in Ruin (1995) and Church (1984), which recall reformed Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston’s City (1969).

Although spanning the last thirty years of James’ career, Long Game departs from the narrative leanings expected of ‘the retrospective’. Without clear timeline, there is an aptly economical appreciation of James’ singular enquiry into the conventions of painting, questioning even the most commonsense notions of past into present into future.

Long Game is at the CCA until 13 March