In contrast to the cryptic diversity that often characterises his work, Merlin James' third solo show at Kerlin Gallery is devoted to highly illusionistic paintings of the sea. Deploying deep spatial illusion and a gamut of painterly techniques (including often-discredited 'effects' of palette-knifing, glazing, scumbling and sfumato), these paintings recuperate a tradition of sea painting that can be traced back through modernism, the Impressionists and the pre- impressionists, to seventeenth-century masters of 'marine painting'.
At one level these works are highly artificial exercises in pictorial convention and language, both in terms of the creation of illusion, expression of movement, evocation of light and description of the material world, and in terms of emotional trigger, associative power and the creation of mood. At the same time this is not simply a calculated deconstruction of artistic 'affect', a flirtation with kitsch, or a critique of the Sublime and of Romantic nature mysticism.
The artist has commented: "The emotive charge of the seascape is unavoidable, and fraught with danger. But most of the artists I am really interested in have painted the sea at some point. I tend to deny or downplay 'self- expression' in my work, or anything autobiographical or confessional. I'd sooner talk about art-historical precedents and so on...Courbet, Delacroix, Lowry, Hartley, Nicholson, Yeats...all sorts of people. But for them, I suppose, the sea was expressive - they didn't shy away from that. And if I think back, the genesis of these paintings of mine may have been on different beaches where I have walked in recent years. It's often been beaches close to the city: Brighton Beach and Coney Island in New York, the English Channel in Kent or Dorset, the Bristol Channel in Wales, the Clyde estuary in Scotland, Sandymount in Dublin. And yet you gaze a few waves out from the shore, and you're in the universal Sea. And yes, sure, there's been a lot of turmoil and a lot of emotions of different kinds..."
Like the highly erotic subjects James began to introduce into his work from the mid 1990s, the seascapes represent another new dimension in his many-faceted investigation into painted experience and meaning.