Beyond Borders: The Paintings of Sarah Merry
A Critical Essay
by Donald Brackett
“No painting stops with itself, or is complete in and of itself. It is a continuation
of all previous paintings and is renewed in all successive ones... “
Gaman 8 2015
Imagine a world where the value of a picture, whether it was a drawing, a painting, a photograph or even for that matter a film, would be calculated only in terms of how liberated you felt while viewing it rather than how much you knew about the esoteric industry or arcane labour laws that produced it.
Welcome to such a world, an inviting country whose borders are only as firm as the imagination of the visiting viewer. This is what painting looks like when an artist drives at full speed forward with a steady hand on the thematic steering wheel and a firm grasp of the principles of picture making. Why slow down as you approach an aesthetic intersection when you can clearly recognize the road signs that link Johannes Vermeer with Helen Frankenthaler?
On the planet of painting occupied by Sarah Merry, which orbits the twin suns of representation and abstraction with equal finesse, it is not only feasible but also desirable to shift attention and focus from the real to the imaginary and back again. Like the works of master painter Gerhard Richter, Merry’s pieces also prove that it is possible to erase the borderlines between genres and meanings and engage in a free fall from aesthetic rules and predictable traditions. Then an artist can fully embrace what the making of images is really all about: the reveries of pure seeing. In this optical playground of hers, over the last 20 years or so, we can clearly witness the works of someone for whom the arbitrarily defined limits of subject, theme, format and motif are pieces of a puzzle, a serious game to be happily played and moved around at will on a fresh chessboard entirely devoid of any pleasure inhibiting boundaries.
Her specific painterly approach, exploring a wide range of image styles and content motifs, is a way forward from realism through abstraction and back again, a way which offers us a rare kind of pictorial freedom for multiple kinds of enjoyment. Enjoyment. It might be an unusual word to hear used in the context of contemporary art, and yet it’s a word that to me is paramount in deciding just what we want to look at during our brief passage through this life.
At first, when I encountered the versatile range of visual approaches in Merry’s work, I was interested in focusing on its diversity, however it occurred to me, no, no, no, that wasn’t the way in at all. The really impressive aspect is the actual continuity between the varied styles and dialects she employs, a tangible continuum which takes shape over the various bodies of work she has produced. Continuum refers to the tactile link between two or more things that occur in a series where each one turns into another so gradually that it is impossible to tell where one ends and another begins.
It is her versatility and diversity that captivates, to be sure, but even more importantly I think, it is her methodical continuity, the shocking link between a representational and an abstract image which share a sensibility, a spirit, a healthy compulsion even - which further increases our appreciation for this artist’s flexibility and persistence of her personal vision. That range of visual interests is evident when she describes her professional epiphany during an encounter with the masterful paintings of Clyfford Still at the Albright Knox Gallery in New York.
“The first time I saw a Clyfford Still painting I was completely transfixed, awestruck by its powerful resonance. Its soulful depth, meaty texture, dramatic composition, striking contrast - the space, simplicity and intensity were revelatory. My aim since that incredible experience has been to create paintings that participate in the larger arc in art history, picking up threads from whispering influences.” I am very fond of her carefully considered way of describing the great one’s paintings, and I am very comfortable borrowing a perfect descriptor to apply to her own works: whether they are realist or abstract, they too have a meaty texture.
In the case of Merry’s work, for me the two realms of realistic representation and freeform abstraction, normally perceived as the twin poles of tradition and modernity, are seen to be not just compatible but utterly interchangeable. It even takes a little time to get used to this degree of freedom of expression, conditioned as we all are to the typical either/or stance of most aesthetic positions. Ultimately, it is very refreshing in the extreme. It is both/and.
An abstract painting like Gaman 8 is simultaneously a landscape, with an apparent building structure, an urban cluster, a horizon line, a sun-like orb, yet with a kind of sub-atomic approach to its physical presentation. It is, in fact, what I would call a quantum painting, perhaps especially since it also suggests to me an electron microscope’s image of the landscape of cells. This push and pull of perspective, the constant shifting of angles and levels of reality and dream, are what give her work a lively and unexpected zest, even what the poet Leonard Cohen once called the spice box of earth… a visual spice box of optical flavours.
Dialogue 13 2002 The Homecoming (Hardy) 2013
These juxtapositions offer a fine array of those very flavours in a way that demonstrates a coherent menu over the years. For instance, the clear influence and inspiration of the American painter Clyfford Still, an abstract hero for Merry, can be seen in the compositional continuity as well as the consistent approach to light and shadow in the shift between 2002’s Dialogue 13 and 2013’s Homecoming (Hardy). The merging of abstract expressionism with a landscape reminiscent of the English pastoral school is evident in this gentle but deep pendulum swing.
Turf 11 (90* to r) 2002 So near to paradise all pairing ends: Here loveless birds
now flock as winter friends... (R. Frost) 2014
The same trajectory informs 2002’s Turf 11 and 2014’s So Near to Paradise, with its allusion to the great American poet of natural tensions, Robert Frost. Turf 11 is technically abstract, and yet when I tilted it ninety degrees on its side, it aligned perfectly with the geological formation presented in So near to paradise, right down to the skies and grounds, carving their way through both images. There is a taut balance between the composition of both works, which is embodied by the vanishing point, and focal reference that again unifies abstraction and landscape by emphasizing the inherently shared and essential subject matter between them. This reminds us of one of the key meanings of the word abstract: to consider something theoretically or separately from something else (in this case, from nature itself).
Festival Moon 4 (90* to r) 2003 Snowshoe 2015
Near and far are of course two of the key ingredients in the panoramic dream world being explored by this artist, a world in which the past and future of painting both appear magically resolved in the present moment. Festival Moon 4 (2003) and Snowshoe (2015) also contain parallel horizon lines, hill ranges, and diminishing perspectives with disappearing fence posts. It is eminently possible to begin to see, in the frozen abstract of Festival Moon, a snowy expanse of winter energy which has traversed the depth of field required for something close and something far to both be clearly visible. Realism and abstraction are not arm wrestling here, instead they are gently shadow boxing.
Dover 2014 When all the fields lay bound and hoar
Beneath a thick integument of snow (HD Thoreau) 2014
Once again, near and far offer us a tantalizing and seductive contrast when we consider the ironies available for inspection through juxtaposing two drastically different motif styles from the same creative calendar year. Both Dover and When All the Fields…with its hovering pastoral Thoreau spirit, clearly indicate the dizzying trapeze-like swings this artist enjoys. The biomorphic abstract yellow form in Dover echoes, or is echoed by, the stand of snowy trees in its companion landscape piece to a degree that fully actualizes the continuum arc I have been commenting upon in her work.
turf 32 (90* to the r) 2002 Winter Zen 8 2016
Aristotle, the inventor of the formal study of aesthetics, claimed what was essential to the making of all valid art was mimesis, the careful copying of nature that made art beautiful because it echoed the forms of the natural world. Naturally in today’s quantum world we have become aware that nature itself is far more abstract than we formerly believed, therefore we are also capable of embracing both realism and more fanciful modes of expression with equal appreciation. That is precisely why an abstraction such as turf 32 from 2002 and the Winter Zen image from 14 years later are still nonetheless members of the same pictorial family.
Cabot Trail 2014 Oh Woolie, Woolie 2013
Likewise, Cabot Trail from 2014 and Oh Woolie, Woolie from 2013, each seem to have grown out of the same metaphysical map, even though one appears to be realistic, with its snowy trail, partially buried fence posts and distant farmhouse structure, while the other has a cluster of nestling shapes in transition with a non-representational focal point. The operative word here is structure: once we understand that this artist is solely interested in depicting structures per se, whether they be physically built objects or the dynamics of formal energy pods leading the eye both towards and away from a centre, the viewer suddenly realizes that the painter is actually less interested in short poems, or stories (as appealing as they may be) but rather in multi-volume and interconnected novels. A visual symphony playing simultaneous movements.
Moonlight Sonata …quietly shining to the Winter Zen 3 2016
Sonata (Beethoven) quiet Moon (ST Coleridge)
Once we encounter a juxtaposition of three images rather than two, something else emerges behind our eyes as well, something known as a dialectical process. Dialectics is basically the way anything grows, whether it be organic or human made: we have a thesis, such as Moonlight Sonata from 2013, an antithesis, such as Quietly Shining, from 2014, and a synthesis, in Winter Zen 3, from 2016. The same horizon line is elongated from the apparent abstract, through the apparent nightscape, on into the apparently photo-realist building in the snow. The simplicity and stillness of all three is utterly compelling when viewed together as chapters in a Proustian kind of novel, where the nature they depict is inherently meditative in emotional tone.