Merlin James is one of those rare artists with a genuine appreciation for what it means to be part of a field, to be label-able, in his case, as a painter. Now on the far side of 50, James has been making paintings for over three decades, as well as curating, teaching, lecturing and writing—predominantly on painting.

His recent show brought together 22 paintings that can be split into two categories. There were those executed on canvas, which have the weather-beaten austerity of an old and often traveled road; and there were those that swap out canvas for polyester. Hanging beside their rugged counterparts, the diaphanous works imparted a sense of delicacy and fragility that lightened the otherwise weighty character of the exhibition.

Most of the paintings were completed in the last three years. They are all modestly sized and many take buildings—a familiar theme for James—as their subject matter. Some are figurative, and others eschew any representation at all. The gestation period for a painting is equally varied; some take up to six years, others less than one.

The two types of paintings require two types of looking: a looking at and a looking through. Those painted on canvas teem with texture. James uses acrylics, often with a dry brush dragged across grainy surfaces. Toll Booth (2000-06) depicts a simple four-sided structure with loose strokes that leave much of the canvas’s weave visible. A few dollops of paint suggest vents or windows, while the predominantly rectilinear layout does a fine job of creating a three-dimensional illusion without allowing the paint itself to dissolve into image.
The paintings on polyester are especially interesting, because they do actually operate in three dimensions. Small Factories (2011) has only dabs and fluttery spats of paint on its surface. A gob of brown hair floats cloudlike, alone, in the upper left quadrant. Behind the sheet of fabric, stretcher bars and cross braces that have been decorated with thin bands of reflective tape and touches of white paint create a layer of geometry. They function as structural support not for the canvas, but for the image. Minuscule buildings, composed of tubular and rectangular scraps of wood, are nailed and stapled to the painting’s bars and braces. It would have been easy to let the unorthodox form overwhelm the content, but it doesn’t. The small buildings exist like tiny sculptures inside the space of the painting. The geometric framework calls to mind city grids, state boundaries and farm fields that pay no mind to the topographic contours and divisions set by nature.
Perhaps because James allows his paintings to develop slowly, they possess a kind of geological gravitas. Still, many are as airy as gossamer. The sensuality of his work makes the clever antics of Conceptualism seem flippant.

Photo: Merlin James: Small Factories, 2011, acrylic on polyester, wood and metal in frame, 413⁄4 by 341⁄2 inches; at Sikkema Jenkins.