Merlin James

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Documenta, Manifesta, the long roster of international biennials that includes Venice, Sao Paulo, Havana, Kwangjo, Istanbul and the Whitney: separately and together, these multimillion-dollar theme-park art extravaganzas promote globalism's view of world visual culture. Their organizers, an interchangeable cast of art functionaries, espouse an eclectic mix of applied entrepeneurship and anti-esthetic post-structuralism, a political and artistic ideology so self-perpetuating and self-evident that no one up to now has managed to give it a name.

In honor of the occasion, let me propose one: Curatorialism. Dovetailing nicely with the erratic values of liberal democracy, free-trade blocks like the EU and NAFTA and the sort of Internet-inflected cosmopolitanism that begot businessmen sans frontières and frequent-flyer curators, the New Art World Order has created what can only be termed Art Empire. And Empire, as we well know, is capable of ultimately producing its own often muddled, sometimes liberating oppositions.

Far from the realm of jihadists and suicide bombers, Art Empire has fittingly wrought a cooler, gradualist blowback, a reaction that however nascent still manages to raise a considerable amount of contrarian heat. You can see it in the attitudes of some rebel artists toward celebrity curators and their programmatically authorial concerns, the writings of critic Dave Hickey on the importance of beauty and the work of a few recalcitrant artists who, though successful, adamantly refuse to play the art world game. A certain rejection?call it a willful perversion even?of the status quo appears to be afoot.

For example, in gelid February British critic Merlin James, the first Alex Katz Chair in Painting at the Cooper Union, stood before a crowd of undergraduates and art world believers at the school's Great Hall and delivered himself of a lecture that argued for "categorization and value judgment in art" while decrying "biennale ballyhoo" and what he termed a significant erosion "in the appreciation of painting's expressive faculties." Controversial for this and other reasons too lengthy to go into here, James went on to call for a notion of all fine arts media as separate "specialisms," an idea he opposed to the raging interdisciplinary-ness that curators, academics and museum folks have raised to the role of fin de siecle Abstract Expressionism. Bold and problematic as a scholarly lecture but rather unremarkable as an art world event, James' nuanced critical retrenchment would go mostly unnoticed except for one genuinely significant thing: the tiny, rabidly intelligent, frustratingly difficult paintings Merlin James the artist is presently exhibiting at Chelsea's Brent Sikkema gallery.

Counterintuitive in the extreme, James' show registers as a significant art event precisely because it frustrates art world expectations of all sorts. Amidst the multiple channel video projections (Eija-Liisa Ahtila at Gasser & Grunert), architecture-inspired installations (Andrea Zittel at Andrea Rosen) and large inanimate paintings (Peter Halley at Mary Boone) available on a recent visit to Chelsea, his work lingered in the memory?not just through its own notability but also in stark contrast to the largely diffuse, intensely mediated effect of the other art on view. Concentrated and enigmatic, modest the way only A-students can be, James brazenly and studiously tacks away from artistic fashion and easy popularity into a zone that is partly a revisiting of modernist painterly rhetoric, partly an artistic No Man's Land.

In the words of another critic, Merlin James' paintings ooze criticality. To stand before them is to unravel a collection of puzzles that have less to do with painterly quotation and art historical references than with deciphering the variable codes of a challenging brand of 21st-century formalism. Painting on small surfaces and in acrylic rather than in a richer oil medium, James subjects his canvases to a series of Frankensteinian grafts and surgeries. Pierced, cut, joined back together and gunked up with the sort of debris most artists have lying around their studio (hair, dirt, dust, bits of paper), they suffer from first-glance-ugly syndrome. On a quick take, it is easy to conclude that James' canvases are not much to look at. But like the girl at the party one notices only the second time around, they are capable of intriguing, even attracting way beyond first impressions.

Derived from an anonymous cache of 19th-century photographs of largely unpeopled Italian landscapes, James' newest series of paintings confront the idea of their photographic originals with the painterly gusto of a pleinairist and the critical ambition of a deconstructionist. They're made up of a variety of furious shorthand strokes that swerve around the pitfalls of observational realism. James makes rough-hewn, textured objects from sources that are flat, graphically precise, formally alienating and mostly colorless. Slicing, restitching and framing according to an organic, cumulative method he leaves ambiguous and open-ended, James matches his intensely handmade practice to the photographer's method of composing, cropping, enlarging and printing.

Why all the fuss regarding photography and painting? It's simple: photography is, after all, the one yardstick against which painting has measured itself (often failingly) for the last 100 years.

Compare the hazy images in one of James' nervous, gummy paintings to the photographically realistic canvases of Gerhard Richter's imitators and you get a sense both of James' prickly unfashionableness and also his rather grandiose mission. The latter, cribbed from the 40-year-old innovation of a chronic skeptic of images, can't help but look anemic. James' work relishes its vibrant encounters with both the physicality and the past certitude of an age-old practice, while deliberately retrofitting the august tradition with a postmodern conceptual discourse that is no less present for being hidden behind layers of acrylic paint and self-conscious reserve.

Take the painting Headland, which describes a rocky massif and two boxy structures in a jumble of not quite complementary colors. Presumably a painting of two houses on a seaside cliff (it really is hard telling without reference to the original photograph), the painting does considerable violence to the idea of pictorial veracity, while resuscitating the nearly forgotten idioms of artists like Raoul Dufy and Edouard Vuillard. A largely indeterminate, energetic experiment in looping squiggles, stabbing brushstrokes and staining daubs, the painting turns so fevered in places that the artist literally wore down the canvas. The patching and repainting of the holes (and the general care James pays to texture and surface) serve to reinforce two things: the painting's almost folksy thingness, and the artist's guarded commitment to an ideal of pure painting he is demonstrably too realistic and cagey to endorse.

Formalists like James are not supposed really to entertain content (in fact, he explicitly forswears it), but this artist most definitely does. As fertile in their cussedness as they are anxious about their place in the world, his small-format paintings deliberately investigate a field that in our lingering post-structuralist age has become ready subject matter like any other: the past, present and future of painting. The fact that they also illustrate a quirky and nostalgic criticality too reticent to fully speak its name leaves them, ultimately, to be even more fully defined by the art world they so strongly oppose.

Merlin James, through July 3, at Brent Sikkema, 530 W. 22nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 929-2262.

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