Saturday 4 April 2020

Merlin James: Sex Paintings

though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself
                             - e.e. Cummings, somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond,

Overcast days never turned me on,
But something 'bout the clouds and her mixed

                            - Prince & The Revolution, Raspberry Beret 



I'd like my paintings to be very bare. To be as minimal as figurative work could possibly be without being dead. With the image forever resisting the physical limitations of its frame, its material conditions as a painted thing : the paleness of the skin with the black-nippled corners. 

                                     - Marlene Dumas, 'Immaculate', Sweet Nothings         


The late Tom Lubbock wrote of Théodore Géricault’s Study of Truncated Limbs ([1.] grisly prep-work for Raft of the Medusa) that it can be read as kind of veiled erotic allegory:

Géricault evokes the way that any sex may involve fragmentation and objectification – in the attention that gets lavished on isolated bits of the body, in the pleasures of total passivity. In fact, this isn’t just a good painting of corpses. It’s a good painting, simply, of sex.

    One of very few. Western painting, for all the intensity it brings to the human body, hardly ever does sex. It does rape. It does violence. It does solitary nakedness. But two people having normal, mutual sex? Art leaves that to pornography. There is no proper sex painting. It’s the most shameful omission. But Gérricualt, in an incredibly roundabout way, and tackling a far more shocking subject, gives a clue as to what such painting might be like.

He certainly does. But it's only one way of doing it.


Gerricualt’s is a picture of disorientation. Bones and flesh curl around one another, light and heavy pile up, touch unexpectedly. Fingertip and toe brush gently, nails against pads. The parts loll as if beached. And it’s still not quite the sex that’s suggested, rather the shipwrecked aftermath: the point from which two temporarily re-constructed consciousnesses slip back to their normal shape, the bodies separating, sliding apart mentally, if not yet physically.

But rewind, to the act in full swing, and the pieces pick themselves up. Disorientation becomes re-orientation, re-organization. Parts and persons become interchangeable, co-operative. Top and bottom, up and down are flipped. A new equilibrium is established, the body given a new balance, a new structure. New but stable; like ants forming a ladder. 

In paintings that deal frankly with sex, perhaps focus, rather than distraction or innuendo, can come just as close to this sense of a world tumbled over. In Merlin James’s sex paintings, it's essentially symmetry (doubling, coupling, mirroring) which becomes a new way of visually dealing with all this: the perfect analogue to the bodily-cognitive-psychological re-composition taking place the shapes made, or more accurately imagined, during coitus. A relatively simple pictorial proposition - why not represent sex with symmetry and order rather than imbalance and abandon - becomes the starting point for limitless formal-thematic exploration. And, concerned with perspective and positioning, rhyming and balancing, touch and reciprocity as the art form is, it's a uniquely painting-particular exploration. 



Untitled (2012-2013, [2.]), has very slightly off left-right symmetry. The V made by the legs strikes at slightly different angles, the whole figure leaning just slightly to the left, each foot positioned just a little differently, the one arched a little more than the other. But it’s pretty much a mirror-image on each side. Traffic light green and red lozenges anchor the corners at the base, like hot and cold taps (turning the man into a kind of bath, a vessel to be lowered into). Gradually, we notice top and bottom equivalences to the design. Arched feet become inverted breasts and nipples. The two dark tubes on either side of the throat, or perhaps the eye sockets, look down on two misty tufts of pubic hair. Top and bottom pull together. The two portions, so to speak, touch.

There’s also a visual shaft, a conduit as much as a line of symmetry, running top to bottom- a visual rod connecting nose, chin, throat, vagina, penis. A painting trick, like the illusions in Hogarth’s famous satire on pictorial perspective [3.], distance is negated, space concertinaed. The untouchable touch. ‘Real’ perspective is balanced by mental-haptic perspective (in Suck [5.], it's replaced by it altogether). 



The irony of Hogarth’s etching is that painting positively revels in impossible meetings- telling alignments, shoring up near and far, here and there, one and the other- the contrivances of a fixed viewpoint, painting’s full-frontality. And of course, there's a long history of optical illusions containing hidden sexual imagery, not to mention sexual symmetry; ‘the beast with two backs’, Rorschach ink blots etc. (see Cornelia Parker’s Pornographic Drawings [4.].). 

Dealing with sex directly, however, James's paintings make themselves available to metaphorical assonances and dissonances between sexuality and wider forms of experience. The sex paintings are like reverse ink-blots or erotic illusions, wherein frank eroticism harbours ghost images of bridges, schoolrooms, pious worshippers.

Suck [5.] can look like someone at a bedside vigil, the woman's arm held by the person in the bed off to the right. Or perhaps a distant memory of a morning recital of the Lord's Prayer, saying grace, or the mildly erotic classroom game of 'heads-down thumbs-up' (with its combination of touch, closed eyes and anticipation), the cartoony face at the base of the picture like a child's drawing on a school desk. There's a sense also of kindling, blowing, stoking, wishing, candle and flame imagery carrying notions of spark, duration, melting, puddling.

The woman's back seems impossibly arched, her anatomy folding in on itself. The shape of her behind and vertebrae, with cut-outs from what could be her partner's knees, looks almost like a suspended ray fish (recalling perhaps Chardin's The Ray), adding to the animal-alien qualities of these slightly sci-fi pictures. The line of symmetry runs more crooked in this picture, tripping down the spine, veering off to the hairline, back down the fringe, the nose and down to the scrotum-like knotted fists. It's more like a train wreck, the shapes stacked up, the marks more brittle and charged, prickled, pent-up; perhaps it's a picture closer to orgasm.


Untitled (2012-2013) displays the sex paintings' recurring sense of target and trajectory. Again there's a memory of coded, emergent sexuality behind the explicitness of the image- a loose star-shape radiates from the genital centre, which resembles the paper folds of a playground fortune teller (count to 5, pick a colour, kiss a friend). The picture is also strongly biomorphic, dilating like the anther and sepals of a flower, shapes negative and positive by turns penile and vaginal. But it can also turn suddenly landscape, a view down a deep valley perhaps, with cascading, staggered waterfall, a sequence of channels, mounds, walls. Then the legs can transform into the wings of an alien cherubim, or two sphinxes guarding a temple.   


The picture’s slippery shifts between these images mirrors the shifting attentions of the person having sex; ditto the way it weaves in and out of abstraction. The man in this picture has become, really, a penis attached to a pair of eyes. A block of clay torso-material which seems to fill-up the negative space between the figures suggests the physical sensation of bodily contact somewhere far below, as the woman's back and her supporting arms meet his legs in some distant place. His sense of his own body has become a series of things enfolded or enfolding, taking or bearing weight, hot or cold, wet or dry, hard or soft, rough or smooth. 

Meanwhile, details of the room have melted. The longer one looks at the paintings- the longer one is engaged in sex- the more the forms flit towards abstraction, free-association, fantasy, reverie. From the man's point of view, his own body (in extreme perspective) has become a blurred box, fading away on the periphery. His focus- which becomes the viewer's focus- is the point of genital contact with his partner. It's in some ways a kind of meditative mandala, a picture of focused, hushed concentration. While it's cliché to talk about sex/art as transcendence, there is at the very least a sense of letting go, or an altered state of attention. A new tactile reality can take over, shapes become abstracted planes, surfaces, countries... 

But then they can also snap back, and the literalness of the image/scenario re-asserts itself. Or the physicality of the surface and the play of colour in a particular area becomes very potent and specific; the feel of her breasts against her own thighs against her own ankles; feet against buttocks, warm calves against cold ribs; icy toes. There's a play of hot and cold across the bodies, and a defiantly differentiated skin-texture across the surface far more considered than the usual generalizations of 'erotic' art, as well as a very sexual awareness of other people’s bodily experience. (James also explores the depths of colour and texture’s interrelation, the difference between a rough red and and a smooth one, a chalky white and a liquid, the green of a foot and the green of a neck).



It would be misleading to treat the sex pictures as a discrete project. Crucially, they relate to James’s wider body of work, and present a re-reading of his recurring interests in and sympathies with other art. There are strong echoes of Serge Charcoune's experiments with symmetry in the early 20th century [19.], the hidden, tactile sexuality in his abstractions and pictures of buildings [9.,10., 17., 18.], his equation between texture and 'energy'; or the mix of metamorphosis and stricture in Christina Ramberg’s pictures of elaborate underwear and hair [8., 16., 20.], somewhere between stained-glass and scientific diagrams, devotion and dissection (both artists have been featured in solo presentations at 42 Carlton Place, a space in Glasgow set up by James and Carol Rhodes). James even leads a re-reading of the haptic eroticism latent in the still lifes of William Nicholson (see the full-frontal string of locks, latches, knobs and orifices in Silver casket and red leather box (1920) [7.] and the erogenous strip down the middle of Sex (2018) [6.]).



A picture like Untitled (2009) [11.], can flit between being a Charchoune-like ‘tree of life’, a kind of pseudo-theosophical diagram, or something recalling the Franco-Russian artist's pictures of houses folded-out and flattened like cardboard cut-outs, the couple two halves of a paper-chain. The image dissolves into a series of bodily-visual metaphors. The symmetry becomes that of skeletons or cuts of meat, or fruit; the negative shapes here suggesting shoulder blades, the woman's bones and ligaments which we can’t see but which she must be conscious of straining; or two great lung-shapes, suggesting the exchange of breath, the paradox of ‘blow/suck’. Further down, scrotum and anus become balloon and basket; a hot-air balloon being a great sexual metaphor of lift and duration, inflation and deflation; an un-berthed vessel, stoked by fire and 'breath', which must also float back to earth, revert back to form. (The balloon takes us back to James’s series of works based on the photographs of the Fratelli Alinari studio [12.]). The woman here becomes like a giant figure of Zephyrus above a landscape, blowing the little vessel off into the unknown, beyond coastal cliffs, or perhaps sending it home, man and woman simultaneously peering over the basket. Utterly frank, utterly available to poetic interpretation.    




It's the strength of composition that allows these pictures to be both crystal clear and yet compellingly ambiguous. There's a confusion here as to whether the dark shape below her head is her tumbling hair or the head of the man, staining his head up to look down. The point where her neck becomes her jaw becomes her chin is authoritative and convincing, even though it is entirely indeterminate. Anatomy can lose definition, or defy rational perspective. Heads are effaced. We are left to map the pictures from point to point, a Morse code of erogenous dots and dashes; anus to shaft to throat to nipples to naval; points of intersection, plotted and pegged.

Which is a lot like what happens in the ‘frame’ paintings: works on transparent supports that expose the symmetrical structure of the stretcher, offset with knots, holes, dabs or flecks of paint, screws, dowels [13.]. 




The erotic is never that far way in James’s pictures. The frame-paintings are a network of focal points laid out like torsos- ribs, nipples and navels forming crosses and triangles. They measure the haptic physicality of things like transparency, or hair, or punctures, against the abstractions of shape and structure, compositional tension, stress and strain (lingerie does this exceptionally well, as Ramberg explored more directly). Not at all the deviants they are often treated as, the sexually explicit works are just another form his painted world takes. James explores the states life comes to us in. Novelty bird-boxes, reveries, mundane buildings, blank weather. Shabby wood and skin. Life is quaint houses and knickknacks. Walks on the shore. Chic living rooms. Children’s toys and games. Sex.






Part of the meaning of these subjects, perhaps, is that they are coaxed from the same materials, in varying weights, hues and intensities; that images, surfaces and meanings are interchangeable, metaphorical. Whereby someone laying half-naked on a bed can become a pier gazing out at the ocean [14., 15.], clasped hands and raised legs a bridge, or a canal lock (bringing complex notions of passage and permission into erotic art, alongside the dreamier connotations of drifting, the frame paintings themselves something like decorative gates). Whereby fire-smoke can be suggested by real hair [23.], and public hair becomes a tower on fire, the space between someone's legs perhaps a lime kiln, a brick chimney [22.]; subjects which in turn contain notions of material transformation, and which come full-circle in the recurring motif of an upright lozenge, somehow both phallic and yonic [21.]. Without getting too reductive, this recurring 'essential-form' speaks of the other paintings' play of horizontal/vertical/diagonal generally; of symmetry interrupted, elegance arrested, ideals and specifics, 'schema and variation'; compositional gameplay and a fluid morphology that avoids doing the endless multiplicity of experience a disservice, is about that unified-multiplicity. Whether it's sex-acts or abstracts, inventiveness, novelty, kinks, are important. Humanely important, even. 




And it's not just the deployment of shapes, subjects or materials on the surface that's important, but the deployment of sexual imagery within shows and hangs, within the wider oeuvre. The frequent use of real hair applied to the picture to denote fire-smoke, for example, was more implicitly sexualized in a recent show, Untitled (Sex)(2019), at Select, Berlin ( The highly condensed presentation featured two prominent sex pictures [ 24., 25.] along with a small group of landscapes [27.], a picture of a river dredger (a mordant image of memory and longing) and the semi abstract Fire on Stage (2017) [26.]: a kind of primal, stripped-down treatment of the motif (usually fire/smoke is a point of wilful chromatic excess in a James painting). The select group of pictures have a sense of frankness, finality even, despite their paucity, keeping to a mostly limited (for James) palette of blacks, whites, greys, ochres, and listing the basic things of life: places, times of day, objects, machines, bodies. The pictures feel like both summation and starting-point. And so it’s important that sex should take such a prominent position.



The two explicit sex paintings colour all the works, set the tone. The landscapes can’t help but seem like glimpses from a bedroom window, perhaps behind curtains. It’s the room-as-world, or the world seen from the room, exploring circles of proximity/intimacy with sex/the human body at the centre. In Glass (2018-19) [28.], what might initially seem like a table pushed up against a plaster wall, or a potted plant in a vase, or a tree in the garden beyond a windowsill, reveals itself as the shadow between breasts, leaning over a tray in bed (a sudden lurch in scale and proximity, though all these misreadings are consistent with the sense of 'dryness' and drinking). The realization that it might therefore be a shaded sick-room follows. Normally the ‘erotic-body’ works are identifiable as a somewhat discrete group (at least in terms of subject), more or less directly dealing with a moment of sexual encounter. But in Glass, the frank depiction of a naked body meets a daintily rendered still-life: becomes, in its small and intensely moving way, a jolting re-calibration (or a succinct re-assertion?) of the terms and conditions of James’s art, and of the two genres which the picture traverses. It has new things to say (or rather ask) about its subjects' relative substantiality, the flesh dissolving like aspirin one minute and overpowering the barely-there but compositionally foregrounded glass the next; while it pays its dues to still life's essential preoccupation with containers, the painting a series of nested vessels (cup, breast, body, room, picture). In its own modest way it re-negotiates the pictorial play of bodies and objects, due in part to the extreme proximity of pure glass and impure flesh, within the condensed frame a super-charged antithesis that's somehow still detached, ambivalent, caught up in a series of imperfect arcs and ellipses. Its closest ancestor is perhaps Chardin's A Lady Taking Tea (1735) [29.]- a recurring Jamesian allusion- with its sense of formalized adoration, imbibing and drifting, distraction, pictorial corporeality; pictures' and people's thereness and not-thereness.





The increased frankness of image, colour and surface extends to the two explicit sex pictures themselves [24., 25.], which manage to retain an elegant sense of design and symmetry against the potentially icky repulsiveness of their surfaces. They are very thinly painted- the sex pictures are often thick, with the paint particularly accreting around the genitals- and the most carnally blatant. Yet they are also super-condensed essays on the sex-painting’s play of positive-negative, of shape and pictorial role-swapping, mirroring and substitution, wherein anuses become inverted nipples, and the human split down the middle becomes a literal seam in the canvas. Penis and vagina become hearts and arrows: cheap valentine imagery that we tend to forget has a direct potency. And, paradoxically, we arrive back thematically at things like ‘love’ and desire - just as the pictures become their most on the nose. There’s an unabashed diving in to love and carnality while still working in metaphor and rhyme (and perhaps even biblical connotations, the flesh and pips of halved apples). They're about as matter-of-fact as pictures can get, and yet function extremely complexly. Their close-up frankness is quite startling (for paintings). But even that close-up quality is a complex gesture in a complex body of work.




Proximity is big avenue of exploration. Often in James's painted world the thicker or more emphatic the paint the more ‘present’, psychologically or literally, the element or experience (just as the pictures swing between reticence and moments of effusiveness). In the transparent frame pictures- specifically those representing landscapes, with their pockets of sunshine, distant figures or buildings- the things of the world are as dispersed in space as the materials are on the picture surface. They are about the size of the world, its vastness, our existence lodged between sky and earth. The sex paintings are partly about their own difference from the rest of the pictures, as much as they are about sex’s difference in character and intensity from the rest of the day: sex’s difference from, or similarity to, the rest of experience. James hardly ever paints naturalistic figures or portraits outside or the erotic pictures, save for recurring profiles and oblique quarter-profiles (which themselves reflect on proximity and availability/resistance, The Vale [ 30.] is in part a kind of summation, treatise or testimonial on pictorial proximity), provisional figures in the distance, or more emblematic, painterly-vernacular characters (pipers [31.], sowers, painters [32.] etc.). The upcoming show at Sikkema Jenkins (postponed due to Covid-19) looks like something of a reaction against this, with startlingly 'naturalistic' figures in either everyday [33.] or slightly theatrical contexts. But it’s part of the works’ meaning- and I mean all the works, by proxy- that the sex paintings are the ones with the figures in close-up, filling the frame. That are frank and unguarded, and often the most physical. Sometimes the most awkward, sometimes the most elegant, the most playful. Sometimes the most adolescent. Sometimes the wisest, or most disabused. 



Albert: ...Shakespeare uses it-
Harold: I don't care if Barbara Cartland uses it!

-Steptoe and Son, 'Men of Letters', Ray Galton and Alan Simpson