Art review: Merlin James | Rachel Lowther

The lone figures of Merlin James’s powerful work invite us to contemplate that which we can’t see

The lone figures of Merlin James’s powerful work invite us to contemplate that which we can’t see

In Merlin James’s painting Painter (red) (1985) a painter in the foreground looks out at what we assume is a landscape beyond. Behind him looms an incomplete building. It is under construction, a ruin in reverse.

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What is the subject of the painting? Is it a self-portrait of the artist? What about the dog that scampers behind him, a freighted little renaissance symbol that we delude ourselves means fidelity when throughout art history it reeks of sex and promiscuity? You think of Gustave Courbet, whose breakthrough came when he portrayed himself with his black spaniel in 1844. What of the tree on the left? It rises like a volcano yet is oddly sundered in two and neither fully living nor truly dead. What is it that the painter can see that we can’t?

James’s paintings are conundrums. His graphic sex paintings often feel to me like landscapes, his landscapes with their acrylic surfaces imprinted with sawdust from the studio floor or slathered with viscous glue and even hair trimmings are almost uncomfortably intimate. He pays attention to historical genre like no other contemporary painter I know, but he is almost indescribably diverse.

Merlin James: Long Game | Rating: ***** | CCA, Glasgow

Rachel Lowther: Nothing compares to the first time getting shot at | Rating: **** | Reid Gallery, Glasgow School of Art

Long Game is a both a superb and long overdue Glasgow retrospective for James. He moved to the city in 2004 and with painter Carol Rhodes has curated a series of small but vital shows at their occasional gallery 42 Carlton Place. James is also a teacher, critic and writer and a significantly outspoken advocate for painting with a long international reach.

Time loops in Long Game. Painter foreshadows almost everything that follows in this strictly non-chronological hang. An untitled landscape with tiny figures from 2016 might echo a work from a decade ago, or a canonical pastoral painted by Nicolas Poussin in the 1630s.

The artists whom James most readily quotes are transitional figures. A work like Cloud above the Sea (2005) refers to the terrific wave paintings of Courbet, a revolutionary who like James both revelled in, and endlessly fought back against, his own facility. Courbet helped birth both realism and impressionism but his hugely impressive sea paintings are crude compared with the contemporary elegance of Manet, the sexiness of his erotic paintings improbably literal seen against the froth that followed.

James is interested in this untimeliness or outsiderness, as in his painting Looker, a lone figure at a skewed window frame. The flash of yellow light on the face recalls the illumination of Courbet’s Self-portrait as a Desperate Man but transformed into a kind of existential blankness. James edges up to Courbet, but is never awed. Green and orange (2003) literally pokes a finger at Courbet’s famous erotic painting L’Origine du monde.

Jacob van Ruisdael is another historical anomaly; art historians have debated whether he should be seen as a strictly topographical painter or a metaphorical one. The 1995 painting Ruin that quotes Ruisdael is also a complicated game about puncture and penetration that James plays again and again over decades of work, with its awkward hole excised in the canvas.

Similarly an early painting of the Arena chapel in Padua, which holds Giotto’s most famous frescoes, is portrayed from the outside. Only a blue incandescence emanating from the upper window in the façade indicates the infinitude of the sky blue vault within. A building is not a useful container of ideas, but a building with a gap in it, representationally or as a rupture on the surface of the painting, allows a space for the viewer to enter.

The exhibition closes with two vitrines of the tiny sculptures of buildings that James habitually assembles from the detritus of the studio and the gallery. What do they mean, these little models? A found champagne cork might become a medieval fortress; a wooden offcut from framing hastily wrapped in soft metal may be a renaissance tower or an industrial grain silo. Perhaps they are a suggestion that art-making is the making of small fictions that turn out to be facts.

Or perhaps it is that painting is an activity rather than an idea. James reminds you that like the creation of the self, it is a job that is never quite finished: a grand house under perpetual construction.

Up the hill at Glasgow School of Art, Rachel Lowther’s new exhibition asks what the artist must do in times of war and what it might mean to imagine or portray the embattled or bombarded body. Lowther was given access to the GSA’s First World War archives and a concurrent exhibition of archive material tells the story of the school at war. Its title From the service of Venus to the worship of Mars are the words of the GSA director Fra Newbery describing the fraught position of artist in wartime. The archive material makes sad and difficult reading and Newbery himself had a breakdown during the war years.

Lowther’s crowded, and at times too scattergun show is nonetheless an authentic riposte to the avant-garde art of that era, particularly the sculptor Umberto Boccioni who seemed to glory in the distortions imposed on the body in times of violence. Her realist clay figures are of civilian figures and a film installation shows them brutally attacked with a pickaxe handle. The terrible sound of the impact on its own is sufficient to freeze you in your tracks, never mind the distorted figures themselves, which have been subsequently cast in fibreglass. Lowther juxtaposes these with stories of contemporary bombardment and domestic imagery of children’s clothes, embroidery and floral bed sheets, thus bringing the war back home.

• Merlin James until 13 March; Rachel Lowther until 20 March