Painting with attitude: the art of creative spontaneity

Merlin James's work on view at Kettle's Yard oozes criticality and offers insights into the act of painting. By David Cohen
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When the young art scene is so dominated by conceptualism, and painting is supposed to be the enemy, 36-year-old Merlin James confounds preconceptions by being that rare thing: a philosophical painter. The two dozen small canvases on display at the Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge, are subtle, poetic, sometimes charming, often odd-ball pictures of nondescript buildings in landscapes, depopulated interiors, quirky architectural details. But they also have "attitude" - an inbuilt anxiety about the very act of painting.

In tandem with his painting career, Merlin James is highly regarded as a writer on art, but you don't need to know that to sense a fierce pictorial intelligence at work: these paintings ooze criticality. They are acutely conscious of the "problematics" of their own construction, but without resorting to the tricks and gimmicks of deconstruction: pastiche, appropriation. On the contrary, they are beautifully composed formal experiences, intense studies in mood and effect. They work as paintings, but are un-deniably "about" painting.

The Kettle's Yard show (concurrent with a travelling exhibition of the American pop artist Claes Oldenburg) is Merlin James's second outing at a prestigious public venue in two years: last summer, the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, his home town, staged a show of transcriptions after Poussin's Landscape with the body of Phocion, a work on permanent loan to them. And as a painter-critic he is already familiar to a Kettle's Yard audience from the catalogue of its recent William Nicholson exhibition. Nicholson is a typical Merlin James discovery: a successful society painter in his day, subsequently neglected but, on closer inspection, a painter of extraordinary subtlety and significance. James's taste in artists, as in motifs for painting, is biased towards the overlooked.

At the Royal College he wrote his thesis on Jean Helion. The ageing School of Paris master publicly praised this as the best thing ever written about him and promptly introduced James to the Albemarle Gallery, which gave him his first one-man show in 1990.

It is not difficult to see why Helion was such a role model for James: a pioneer of purist abstraction in the 1930s who claimed Poussin as a forebear, he unexpectedly reintroduced the figure in an odd-ball humanist late style, all the while retaining the lessons of his former abstract practice. In both criticism and painting, Merlin James aspires to this dangerous middle ground between avant-garde and traditional. Appropriately for Cambridge, another mentor is FR Leavis. In his polemical pamphlet Engaging Images: Practical Criticism and Visual Art (Menard Press, 1992), James laments the absence of an equivalent to the high-minded, mid-century new literary criticism. By including in the book examples of his own "practical criticism" of pictures on display at the National Gallery, he implied that it's never too late.

James offers an unfashionable plea for visuality, for what is unique about the painterly experience. The last thing he would want is for his own painting to illustrate critical theories - a crime for which he has often enough indicted conceptual art. Actually, there is a tension in his work between rigour and deliberation on one hand, whimsicality and naivety on the other. It seems he has taken to heart Leavis's dictum that "the creative artist has to learn to be spontaneous". He paints objects in the real world but with sufficient perfunctoriness - virtually in shorthand - as to avoid the traps of observational realism. An easel in the middle of an empty studio, a prosaic sub-Bauhaus suburban house, scaffolds and stairwells and revolving doorways are at one and the same time sophisticated ciphers for an art about art, and actual structures to be filled in or painted over: boundaries within which to be fresh and spontaneous.

For all his emphasis on visuality, James can be disdainful of the intrinsic quality of materials. He has a puritanical disdain for oil paint's seductive lushness, using acrylics precisely because they make him work harder. The effects, in other words, must be pictorial achievements, not just sensory accidents. His work can veer from dark, lugubrious obscurity (a tendency unduly emphasised in the Kettle's Yard selection) to near-kitsch daintiness.

Old familiar cubist techniques make their appearance as he plays his games with the syntax of painting: an easel painstakingly crafted out of applied bits of found metal collaged into the paint surface. Sometimes he takes the risk of appearing utterly naff, of "painting by numbers", of being intentionally deadpan, in a sophisticated dialogue with art history. But he is never really tongue-in-cheek. Even hitting the tonal and textural extremes of murkiness or quirkiness just turns out to be another way of eliciting that enigmatic poignancy so resonant in his more even-keel compositions.

n To 22 Sept. Kettle's Yard Gallery, Cambridge (01223 352124)