James Hyde/Merlin James

James Hyde: I was first introduced to your work as a dual project, simultaneously involving writing as well as painting. Two years ago Michael Jenkins of Brent Sikkema Gallery showed me several of your small canvases and told me, "Merlin writes criticism also - here, you might enjoy these reviews ..."

These were paintings of interiors, landscapes and buildings. They were rickety affairs. They looked like they had knocked about the studio for a couple of years gathering dust, scratches, (even holes), the canvas being cropped or added to - tailored to different size stretchers, as countless paint layers got added. Mostly dusky and subtle, but often enough with spikes of color.

Merlin James: They do often go through long process in the studio. Often I can't specify a starting date for a work and more, because it's gone through so many changes. But then occasional ones are quite quick also - some are just thin paint, with drawn elements, that have worked immediately and needed no revision. And often even when they appear old and distressed, it's not necessarily that they've been around a long time - it's just a look they have. The holes are cut - they're not damage.

I don't like art to look brand new, nor 'of its time' really, because then it dates and goes to look tired. If it starts out looking a bit dated and tired already, maybe it will survive better somehow. At the same time, it's not some affectation, not an 'aging effect' that I deliberately work at. The whole question of what is 'recent' work for me is quite an issue, anyway. I consider most of my work since around 1990 to be 'current'; and even paintings from '85 to '90 when they were more illusionist, or earlier again when there were more primary abstract forms mixed with process and representational elements - all of it from my student work onwards keeps recurring and being recast. So although there are paintings which I now don't rate, and times when I now think I was off track, still there's a synthesizing urge in the work - it wants to reprise as it also advances. I guess it's true of lots of artists...

Hyde: There's a lot to talk about with the paintings, but first I want to ask you about a review you wrote that particularly struck me, of some painting shows in New York. You covered contemporary artists of different generations and styles: Keith Myerson, Susan Rothenberg, John Currin, Jacqueline Humphries, Terry Winters and Julian Schnabel. You shook them down to two camps - those that approached painting ironically or parodically, and those that acknowledged its traditional humanism, but in doing so took on a conservatism that made you almost sympathize more with the recent orthodoxy of the ironists. The two attitudes seemed to reinforce each other. The ironists coyly protested sincerity, while the conservatives left one hungering for a little spice. After reading the review I found myself categorizing painters according to this division in current painting. Is this the present position of painting? Are we caught between placid tradition and snickering spoof? Would you propose a third way?

James: I ought to say that I don't often write about contemporary things. I usually write about the artists that are important to me from earlier in the twentieth century. It would be too formulaic to write criticism of current art and come up with a recipe for one's own work, or with a directive like "there must be a third way" or "good art has always contained both affirmation and negation". The reality of making art is so complex; there's no easy analysis or quick formula.

But yes, there is certainly the problem of an endemic, facile and passive irony now. Although it is no longer fashionable to announce yourself as ironic, partly because it's become such a cliché, and partly because there is some genuine recognition that it has become debilitating. But how does a painter escape from it? To simply say "but I don't intend this image, this painting, to be ironic" is not enough, because the prevailing context of contemporary high-art culture - the galleries, colleges, magazines, institutions and so on - is knowing, sophisticated and disabused. Within it any picture which weakly recycles conventions from the past is going to be read as parodic.

You must reflect on this yourself, surely, because one way of looking at your work is clearly to think of it as re-presenting many 'traditional' elements of painting in somehow 'remarked' or conscious ways. Color would be one such element: you play on color's 'applied' nature - the paint 'layer' in traditional painting - by using colored tape. Or you use fresco, this highly authenticated early-Renaissance technique, where the color is soaked right into the matter of the support; but then you fragment the plaster grounds, and you show them to be themselves layered and stratified. Other pieces will juxtapose applied color with dyed color, with reflected and refracted color on glass or metal, with inherent color (i.e. the chemical color of the very material used), and so on. So painting's color concerns, that go right back through maybe Kelly or Reinhardt, to Fauvism, Seurat, Impressionism, Delacroix, Venetian painting - all this is opened up for discussion. The same thing might be said of how you use or reference 'mark' and 'stroke'. You rarely take a paint brush and do a 'paint stroke' of a normative sort, but you have the paint splurges in the glass box pieces, which are pure mark (as well as pure color). You have something like the filaments within the surface of galvanized alloy. You have the splashes of color on the fresco pieces, the crumples and creases in cloth or vinyl. These are all surrogate or pseudo-marks. Ditto for 'composition', your combination of elements will stand in for what would once have been an organization of pictorial structure. And then you'll even play with the role of a painting as something hanging on a wall - a piece of decor, an altarpiece, whatever, when you use shelves or brackets to mount work, or conspicuously bolt it to, or prop it against, the wall. And so forth. Along with all these functional strategies come other games with painting's syntax, such as when the use of taping transforms a utilitarian material into an aesthetic one and a purposive act into a 'gratuitous' one. This flags whole historical philosophical discussions of art. But in all of this isn't there the tendency for people to read your work as parody?

Hyde: I'm always taken aback a bit when people see my work as parody because it's clear that they can see the various paradoxes and the humor in the work. But they don't really ask themselves what it is that they think I'm parodying

The substitutions of applied and inherent color, gesture and surface, mark and "pseudo-mark" you've just described are sometimes jarring and undercut expectation. I incorporate these "moves" in my work to display the operations of painting and abstraction. This may make them seem parodic. It helps me to see these visual operations and understand them physically. With parody there needs to be an object of derision and there just isn't one with my work. Irony is distinct from parody, it offers and then substitutes in a way that undercuts the initial pretense and makes that substitution notable. So, yes, semantically my various substitutions are ironic. But looking at this in a broad context, push any symbolic system and you'll find irony. Representational painting, for example offers the cow, but gives you a painted surface or in terms of more recent thinking, offers you the painted surface and gives you the image of the cow. Any symbolic system can said to be inherently ironic depending on how oppositional you find the relationship of the represented to what is doing the representing.

I regard abstract painting as profoundly related to the world. It both reflects and creates the real as well as being descriptive of human activity and desire. This seems fairly obvious to me, but I can see how it might be a real problem for some people. There is a strong contingent, (as indicated by some large European collections and some very expensive paintings in Chelsea) that believe abstract paintings are mystical objects that do not represent, do not symbolize, but through their contemplation and acceptance provide a sort of spiritual ticket. For them, a vigorous workout of abstract painting's semantics and operations must look like the priestly robes of abstraction have been traded in for spandex.

James: One thing I want to ask you is, does (and if so how does) your work 'express' anything? Is it in the sense of doing work, as well as being work? Would you do a piece 'about' something, other than about itself; and if there are referential meanings at all, do these vary, or is all the work 'about' the same sort of things?

Hyde: I don't think much about 'expression'. I think a lot about: viewpoint; the texture of seeing; big beauty, little beauty, both sizes of sublime; ventilation; clothes; invention; performance; commitment; adhesion; paintings; anthropomorphism; places I like; liquidity; fear; enjoyment; tectonics; practicalities; speed; desire; words. That's an incomplete list, but perhaps it can serve as my 'expression'.

Certainly how a subject is engaged differs between genres. Much of what makes a genre distinct is how it goes about being about something-a poem renders its subject very differently than an essay. It's interesting that while everyone knows an abstract painting when they see it, it's virtually impossible to get a workable consensus about what it is. Defining it is an intellectual (and emotional) Rorschach test. This is so much so it is hard to imagine an incorrect definition. A major part of an abstract work's meaning is how it defines itself--it's use and identity are often in fluid exchange. This process of definition involves the (subjective) application of many subjects. I find good abstract pieces are those that create relevance when attached to a variety of subjects.

James: In his book Personal Knowledge, and in various articles on art as I remember, Michael Polanyi makes his claim that any physical means of operation - any use of tools, really - has to become invisible to the user in order to function. To hammer in a nail the hammer has to become a tacit extension of the worker's hand, and the pianist cannot play if s/he is conscious of the fingers striking the keys. Proficiency necessities a loss of self-consciousness, somehow. Karl Popper said analogous things in qualification of Wittgenstein and linguistic philosophy - that it may good to polish one's spectacles from time to time - to examine one's tools of perception and analysis - but that in order to get on with the real job of philosophy this process has to be suspended. I always had doubts about this, since, indeed, much modern music and even much modern performances of old music do seem characterized by the pianist's (say) attempt to simultaneously play and be aware of playing. There is a kind of deliberate breaking down of fluency, a resistance to that innate identification with the music and that making invisible of means. And of course something of what characterizes an art 'utterance' as opposed to a functional, purposive utterance has always been that opacity at some level.

Hyde: You're linking expression to a notion of integrating performance with a simultaneous awareness of the performance. It suggests to me an exquisite way to regard expression that allows a vibrant humanity without recourse to banal models of intention or Humanist pieties. Yesterday I was listening to Townes Van Zandt and mulling over your formulation. I had always thought that the nervous tenderness in his singing was due to shyness, but I realized it was really an intensity of performance which was at the same time measuring that performance. It's what gives really good Country music its pregnant sourness. You get something else with good Electronica, like Squarepusher, another CD on the machine, for instance. He breaks the beat into a machinic and self-conscious buzz. It's a caffeine jolt, rather than Townes's soury sweet bourbon.

James: Now, when you mention Townes Van Zandt, my ears prick up, because Country music, which I love, is also a terrific field to talk about when you're trying to think about these issues of expression and intention in art. Somehow that 'low art', that rather despised, vulgar and sentimental genre, seems to isolate certain issues rather wonderfully. Above all this issues of sincerity and parody - of cliché and reinvention of conventions - of tradition versus individual talent. The question is this: How does an artist, who chooses to operate within a defined genre, both excel within it and surpass it. How do you challenge and extend the boundaries of your tradition, and yet not abandon it totally, not go into free fall. And how do you not resort to the strategy of adopting an easy ironic pose? Well, I think one thing that a work has to do is reflect an awareness of its precedents, match itself against them, and then ideally bring something new also. Townes's Ballad of Poncho and Lefty might be an example. Guy Clarke's Let Him Roll certainly is. So is Guston's self-portrait in the studio, even though it may look like an outrageously parodic thing at first. What redeems it is partly something to do with form - with structural strength. It's not just throwing elements together and mimicking a painterly language - it's actually articulating these things. So the key for me is partly a belief in the ability of individual works to have inherent, as it were 'internal' qualities and logic, that distinguish them and that give them value to some extent independent of their context. Of course those qualities and that logic may only be understood with reference to the tradition in which the work is operating, but nevertheless ... what I mean is, someone may be uninterested in Country music, or Abstract painting, but within those categories there are better and worse examples, and indeed the better examples to some extent write into themselves a consciousness of their genre in a way which allows them to transcend it. And without simply parodying it, either.

Hyde: This has been one of the thrilling things about getting to know your work. I pretty much regarded figurative easel painting as a closed genre. Not only are your paintings incredibly vital, but they have me looking and involved with work, particularly early Twentieth-century English painting, that I had passed over or hadn't noticed. And that's always an accomplishment - to knock an artist out of his rut!

But you said something earlier, that doesn't seem quite so to me. You spoke about your work as being "not of its time". You certainly don't partake in avant-gardism, which has, by now, degenerated to a fashion cycle. Instead of an oedipal relation to history I see you measure, adjust and cultivate precedent. Because of the freshness of this approach, but also because of a highly evolved mechanics of painting, (your paintings have modernism's immanence of panel and surface and post-modernism's play with the complexity of imagery), your paintings are, in the best sense, of the moment.

James: What goes wrong when works fail, for you? For me, for my paintings, it's not just when they slip too far into, or too far out of, their category as painting. It's also when they slip into certain categories within painting, become some kind of familiar work that might be fine, but is not what I want. Or they just lose identity and raison d'Étre generally - they become inconsequential. Then I get rid of them or start them over as new paintings.

I can't see it being quite like that for you, because your works feel quite planned and 'executed'. But do they ever depart from the plan? I don't just mean that they may take off visually and semantically in ways beyond your expectation, but might a work actually lead you to develop it organically into an entirely different kind of object. So, could a gesso and fresco piece demand, say, some charcoal drawing over the surface, which in turn could provoke something collaged, which then prompted the shedding of the Styrofoam support, etc. etc. So that it's still the same piece, developing through a kind of narrative drama of its own evolution, and finally finding a resolution in a place far away from, but related to, its origins. And I do mean here a process that takes place within an individual work, rather than in the evolution of an artist's more general practice. Is it anything like that sort of process for you?

Hyde: I attempt to make each individual piece as successful as I can, but its important for the work to hold its initial idea--even, (or especially) when the course of work overturns it. For me, the physical grounding of a painting is an essential figure, part of its imagery, if you will, rather than just its delivery system. All paintings have some tension between what they are technically, how they look in the end and how you can see their process of arriving. I vary the emphasis from work to work to see how each painting might be different. This is partly why I am involved in the archaic technique of fresco and as well as contemporary non-painting materials. I allow different paintings have different parameters. My fabric paintings often go through a lot of transformations although there aren't signs of process in the finished work. The locations where materials are performed and transformed are also open for variation. Even though I prefer my pieces to look simple and easy, spontaneous adjustment is always in operation on some level. The fresco paintings are intensely improvisational, largely because of the limited time in which they can be painted. In the past I have painted over, re-layered and "drawn" over the surfaces by incising them. But I've found that with too much over work the painting becomes mixed media - collage - and loses the freshness the medium is named for.

James: That organic, developmental project, with all the time the risk of failure, that you might not be able to bring this thing to satisfactory conclusion - this is very close to the heart of an art work's identity for me; but it's something I don't see much in a lot of work now, not in any interesting way. So many shows one sees in galleries consist of a series of basically formularized, repeat performances hung around the walls, maybe varied in size or color or image, but essentially 'produced'. Then I went today to the Cézanne watercolors at Aquavella, and OK, it's easy to point to him as some transcendent master, but just at the level of true variety and research each work was so different, such a new project every time. For me it's bound up with the way art's meanings are somehow always displaced. One does something in order to allow something else to happen. The notion from literary criticism of the Intentional Fallacy has been one of the most useful things to me both as a critic and as a painter. I think we must always transcend our intentions, and at the same time we must always try to catch up - though we never can - with the 'real' significance of what it is we do.

Sometimes I think my paintings have something to do with being very shallowly in experience of the world so much of the time - not just the outside, the physical world, but even the emotional narrative of one's own life. I never normally speak of the work as self-expression or autobiography of any sort - why should anyone be interested? But I think I often feel rather outside my own life and world, and very much outside history, too, with no really strong feelings of owning and being owned by history. And yet my impulse, and that of the work, is against estrangement. It is the opposite of so much art that restates (even when it denies it, or doesn't know it's doing so) our all-too-well-recognized 'alienation'. The pictures are a depiction of a world of meaning intensely valued because all-but-lost.


© Copyright 1999, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc.


Merlin James, Sheep, 1999
Acrylic and hair on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

James Hyde, Large Pillow, 1999
Acrylic paint on linen, newspaper