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b. 1960, United Kingdom

Merlin James Biography

Merlin James is a contemporary artist, writer, and curator who is known for his paintings which engage with concepts and narratives of Western art and painting histories. James represented Wales at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007.

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Born in Cardiff, Merlin James studied at the Cardiff College of Art in the late 1970s. He went on to gain a BA (Hons) from the Central School of Art (now Central St. Martins) in London in 1982, and in 1986 he graduated with an MA in Painting from the Royal College of Art.

In addition to his painting practice, James is an art writer and critic, with essays and articles published internationally including in The Burlington Magazine, where he was Associate Editor, Modern and Contemporary from 1997 to 2000. He has also curated several exhibitions in the U.K. and Europe, and runs the occasional gallery space 42 Carlton Place out of his home in Glasgow.

Painting in the easel tradition

Divergent in subject, style, and materiality, the oeuvre of Merlin James eludes rigid categorisation and has been described as 'brandless'. His small-scale works recall the easel they were painted upon, and reflect an intense consideration of painterly language and Western art history—particularly of formalism, conceptual art, and postmodernism.

James's paintings contain a multitude of referents that shift the viewer's attention between the painted narrative, material construction, and contextual histories. Tension is often created by distressing the surface, warping the frame, overpainting, or incorporating materials such as hair and dust. Sherman Sam of Artforum has considered James' practice as 'rigorously problematiz[ing] the experience of painting while simultaneously deepening its formal language.'

Genre Paintings

Merlin James' 2015 exhibition Genre Paintings at Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, references his interest in genre painting and its potential to intersect with contemporary painting concerns.

Typically working from a windowless studio and relying on memory to create his images, James' works traverse a broad range of often deliberately unremarkable or awkward subjects. These include landscapes and cityscapes, architecture and interiors, figures and animals, and abstract colour studies, which are made cryptic through unconventional material or structural decisions, such as the bowed edges of the cropped study Silver Birch (2014–2015).

Works such as The Window (2020) and Dredge (2018) are reminiscent of Impressionist painting, with their quasi-romantic depiction of urban scenes in muted pastels, however they are complicated by unsettlingly warped edges or an anachronistic frame. On The Window, David Ebony writes: 'The image suggests a slice of life, although the ambiguous spatial relationships and dreamlike, romantic ambience foil any sense of realism.'

Frame Paintings

James is also recognised for his 'frame paintings', which subvert traditional approaches to the canvas and integrate substrate, structure, and frame as part of the subject of the work. In House and Cloud (2010), a sheer mesh-like textile is stretched over the frame, revealing the supporting stretcher bars and canvas wedges that the artist has carved and painted. In Buildings (2012), a small carved building rests atop the wooden frame, which surrounds sheer stocking-like fabric stretched taut over bars.

In works such as Shore Building and Bridge, Buildings (both 2012), James creates a pictorial discomfort by enclosing the works in oversized or disproportionate frames, thereby asserting a self-referential consciousness of the paintings. Mara Hoberman has commented in Artforum: 'Treating the frame as raw material, James elevates it to an integral part of the artwork itself and, in so doing, thwarts the frame's ability to confine or objectify his paintings.'


Selected solo exhibitions by Merlin James include Window, Kerlin Gallery, Dublin (2021); River, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York (2020); Merlin James, P420 Gallery, Bologna (2020); Untitled (Sex), SELECT, Berlin (2019); A View of the Clyde River at Glasgow, A-M-G5, Glasgow (2018); Long Game, OCT Boxes Art Museum, Shunde (2018); Paintings, Galleria Raucci/Santamaria, Napoli (2017); Long Game, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow (2016); and Meeting at the Building, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin (2015).

Selected group exhibitions featuring Merlin James include Mixing It Up: Painting Today, Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, London (2021); Slow Painting, Leeds Art Gallery, West Yorkshire, England (2019); Painting Amongst Other Things, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra (2018); Salon 007, Saatchi Gallery, London (2018); and Park, Guangzhou, Holly's Gallery, Guangzhou (2017).

James represented Wales at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. In 2010, he was the recipient of the Scottish Arts Council Visual Artists' Award. He is represented by Kerlin Gallery in Dublin and Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York.

Misong Kim | Ocula | 2021

Merlin James Featured Artworks

View All (15)
Untitled by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesUntitled, 2021Acrylic and ash on canvas
56 x 40 cm
Kerlin Gallery Contact Gallery
House tree bridge by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesHouse tree bridge, 2018–2021Mixed materials
121.5 x 160.5 cm
Kerlin Gallery Contact Gallery
Stretch by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesStretch, 2016–2019Acrylic and mixed media
61 x 59.1 cm
Kerlin Gallery Contact Gallery
Untitled by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesUntitled, 2018–2021Mixed media
88 x 194 cm
Kerlin Gallery Contact Gallery
Untitled by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesUntitled, 2021Acrylic and ash on cotton
87 x 75 cm
Kerlin Gallery Contact Gallery
Birdcage by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesBirdcage, 2018Acrylic and mixed materials
31.1 x 22.9 cm
Kerlin Gallery Contact Gallery
Red building by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesRed building, 2017–2019Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
40 x 77 cm
Kerlin Gallery Contact Gallery
The Sea by Merlin James contemporary artwork painting
Merlin JamesThe Sea, 2021Acrylic and ash on canvas
30.5 x 40.5 cm
Kerlin Gallery

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