Review: Merlin James at the Kerlin Gallery

Laura Masi writes a review on Merlin james’s exhibition which recently ran in the Kerlin Gallery.

When I first saw the images advertised for the exhibition at the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin; I instantly thought the paintings were done by a female artist. I guess I associate warm earthly colours, organic forms and sheer fabrics with a sense of femininity; or perhaps the delicate yet vintage nostalgia feeling that exudes from Merlin James’ painting gave me that impression. It did make me question my own perception of how different works of art give an impression of gender and how maybe inheritably we associate certain techniques or materials as masculine or feminine. But that’s a whole separate can of worms I will put aside for the time being.

Merlin James is a male and his exhibition at the Kerlin Gallery consists of fifteen works that seem to alternate from bigger to smaller in size around the gallery space. The over all nature of the paintings are of an abstract discipline with a focus on mixed media. A distinct theme with in his works is a conversation between the collapse of painting, its history and reworking of what painting is along side contemporary art.

As, I walked around the gallery a repetition of exposed frames and fully covered stretched canvas work its way along the walls. I am instantly attracted to the exposed frame pieces and at first glance it would appear that these paintings are hung backwards; but as you approach them the intention is beautifully visible. The use of shimmery fabrics (perhaps organza) and cheesecloth are used to create see through layers that bring forth the frame of the painting. In addition, slightly over sized or uneven framing is used with many of the paintings giving the impression of reusing already made picture frames or throwing together remnants. Along with that aesthetic of remnants a few of the works have scrape like pieces of wood that are carved or layered in a way that resemble little houses or buildings. These little structures are placed in various areas of the paintings, such as perched on a centre supporting cross bar or on the inside ledge of an over sized frame outside of the actual painting. These little wood structures add a whimsical touch to the over all works and further contextualizes them within a landscape setting.
Merlin James seems to favour a warm analogist, colour palette that uses predominately maroon, moss, seafoam, burnt umber tones with splashes of yellows, pinks and bronze. The transparent paintings consist of little actual paint but the splotches that are present have a clear function and texture. Attention is calculated in the placement of the splotches, which effectively moves the viewer’s eye around the painting; inviting them to take notice to the fine details that can be over looked at a distance. A young man and woman entered the exhibition as I was there and only allowed a quick glance around the gallery before deciding to leave. Perhaps they were hoping for a grandiose impact of artist expression. Merlin James’ work requires time and up-close inspection to be fully appreciated.

The actual application of paint through out all the works is very tactile and visceral with hair, shavings, and tiny pebbles mixed into the paint creating texture, which extends from the canvas or fabric. The works that are created on canvas consist of more paint but continue with imagery of landscapes perhaps being viewed through a window in a passing by vehicle or birds eye point of view. The painting titled “Matters” makes me think of a game of pool being captured from above. Another titled “Blue Boat” seems to resemble a fighter aircraft sweeping over an ocean, coming face on with the viewer at a tilted stance. Nonetheless, each individual may find or see different imagery within each piece of work; but a starting point of representation is situated with in dreamscape abstraction.

A push and pull between fully painted canvases, exposed frames, use of layering and seemingly found wood ends form a debate that regenerates what painting is and how it can evolve along side new modes of contemporary art. I believe James’ is also interested with terms of ownership that has accompanied master painters through out history and the ideas regarding authorship, as his signature becomes a key focal point in various works. He uses a combination of initials and full expressions of his name in a variety of locations on the paintings. Anywhere from the left upper corner to the right lower corner to the middle left to completely void, presence of a signature.

A definite ebb and flow is considered in Merlin James’ work and the curating of this exhibition. With exception in regards to this one painting in the show titled “Blue Black White (Buildings)” which consists of basically that stark blue, black and white. This painting is purely black up top and white on the bottom half, with what looks like to be a blue axe shape fitted horizontally across the black portion. There are a few wide strokes of paint on the sides of the canvas that lead my eye around the edge which gave me the desire to peak behind the painting; wondering if there was more to see on the backside. I thought to myself this is the only piece that seems out of place, did the artist just throw this painting in the mix to purposely disrupt the pleasant dreamy, melody of the works. Perhaps he ran out of paintings and decided that one would do? I pondered this for a bit and realized how fitting and poetic while encountering this piece my inner impulse wanted to flip over that single painting…..perhaps there was something better to look at in behind.

Laura Masi has a BFA and BEd in Art Education from the University of British Columbia and is currently doing the MA Art in the Contemporary World at the National College of Art and Design. You can check out her personal street art blog at