Back in 2007 on a snow burdened day in New York, a friend and I traipsed from one end of Manhattan to the other in sub-zero temperatures to see Merlin James’ solo Painting to Painting at the New York Studio School (curated by David Cohen). This was the perfect pedagogical setting for the artist’s work, if you revisit James’ lecture-cum-essay ‘Painting per se’ (2002), that reveals in one instance his negotiations at interview stage regarding a teaching job in London, whereby oppositional teaching methods of interdisciplinarity and specialisation were pitched across the interview table.

At the New York Studio School James’ paintings were presented with thrift-store generosity; a mishmash of years and styles compressed together. Whereas, the cold modernism of the Douglas Hyde Gallery architecture that frames his current show in Dublin – combined with the distance between individual works – forces the spectator to meditate on each and every painting as a series of individual tableaux. In this sense, James is right to term this specific exhibition in Dublin as a “micro-retrospective.”[1]

In 2002 James took up the post of Alex Katz Chair in Painting at Cooper Union New York. This appointment was inaugurated with James’ essay ‘Painting per se’ (what is a cultish, under-the-mattress document for painters). The essay introduces James’ life-long championing of Alex Katz; although unfashionable to do so then. But now, because Katz is so fashionable with critics and the current art market, James’ championing of him doesn’t feel so eccentric.

Unsurprisingly, Katz is still the unmentionable painter in art schools, and today’s painter would only bring him up to slag him off. The main treatise of the essay is the waning singularity and inwardness of painting amid the taught interdisciplinary of contemporary art practice – like the truism asks and answers: “Why are all the conceptual artists painting now? Because it’s a good idea.”

More than anything else, ‘Painting per se’ is revealingly autobiographical; with some ‘other painter’ bashing along the way. Painting is at its best visually, and as discourse, when it is adversarially preachy. The reason why ‘Painting per se’ is important to painting/painters, is because it is manifesto-like in an era when manifestoes are unfashionable: bravado went out of fashion with Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko’s bombastic ‘Statement’ in 1943. James’ loaded observation that “You will have to be against a lot painting, to be for other painting,”[2] attests that painters are always pinching the critical trigger, especially when its comes to their own kind.

The main villain of James’ essay and recent public talk at the Douglas Hyde Gallery is Gerhard Richter; accompanied by henchmen, Frank Auerbach, Lucien Freud and Martin Kippenberger – describing the latter’s painting enterprise as the “Kippenberger-effect.”[3] Excluding Freud and Auerbach, they are all serious pranksters. Kippenberger and his partner in crimes against painting, Albert Oehlen, devised a scenario in which they would seriously paint badly in the 1980s. In a recent interview, Oehlen revealed his bad- painting-ideology: “I mean, you have to do it seriously [bad painting]. You have to take responsibility. You cannot just do it as a side project and make an arrogant attitude, a gesture. I think Dieter Roth could not have done it because he was not a painter. You have to become a painter and hold your head out the window. You have to give it an importance, and I did that, so that’s why I could do it. [laughs]”[4] I saw the results of Oehlen’s ‘imbecilism’ for the first time as part of Charles Satchii’s Triumph of Painting in 2005, and while ignorant of the works’ raison d’être, there was something really memorable about how bad they were, or was that Postmodernism talking?

Merlin James at Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 2/2/2012, photo: author.



Merlin James

In the Gallery

Douglas Hyde Gallery Dublin
03 February - 28 March 2012



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