Critical Essay : Beyond Borders (cont'd)
By Donald Brackett
Nature is somehow supernatural in Merry’s works. Generally full to bursting with wide open spaces and immense distances, her gentle impressions and bold expressions both hinge on an awareness of a certain kind of quiet sacredness; not a sacred separate from nature, it is an earthy sacred.
The winter hut image suggests a real, if tiny, architectural edifice with a practical purpose and function almost living within the frozen wide-angle lens of Moonlight Sonata. And when we contemplate their content in conjunction, we can begin to see that the hut rendering is semi-abstract while the primavera-based Moonlight depiction is breathtakingly actual in its offering of a far northern prospect, one which nearly situates Inuit igloos in its snowy spatial field. Is there not also a rudimentary or primal series of huts spread out in its on a frozen field, nearly submerged objects emerging from the ice? It is yet another example of the pictorial marriage between the real and the imagined.
Having first been introduced in about 1903 by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, abstract painting has been with us now for 113 years. It was Kandinsky who first identified the necessary flexibility and aesthetic suppleness required to move from one genre to another with some agility. The main issue for him, and one which remains crucial today, is whether the method for delivering images is true to its own nature, not necessarily what it looks like on the outside.
If we think of the art world as a track and field meet and different styles as the disciplines, one can quickly come to an appreciation for an artist capable of succeeding in a kind of decathlon of pictorial events. Sarah Merry is proficient enough to pull off a maneuver within the entire principal formats in art history (portrait, still life, landscape and abstract) as well as engaging in uniquely flexible moves within art history’s primary themes (nature, self, society and spirituality), not just separately but more often all at once.
A good example of this phenomenon would be one of her Winter Zen paintings, images based on actual documentary photographs of functioning huts in a somewhat forbidding environment. They are clearly landscape, yet simultaneously still life; an assemblage of objects strewn across a geological table-like terrain. That is precisely what many of Merry’s images appear to convey to me, regardless of their style, format, theme or motif: what it means to have eyes to see.
Dig 26 2002 Micropose 2013
At first glance, two abstracts such as Dig 26 and Micropose might appear to be almost classical expressionism from the pure Hans Hoffman or de Kooning school of looking. But looking from the deeper subterranean level of continuity at work, I saw maps of a territory. Micropose seems to suggest an aerial view of a landscape with varied contour formations. Dig also presents yet another aerial view of fields and rivers. Once more, the cocoon forms emerge in both compositions, even though they are separated by eleven years. In my opinion, given the shared muscularity of the paint surface and the process of stratification it suggests, both of which explore the golden mean ratio and reciprocal relationship of the part to the whole, these bold images may as well be only eleven minutes apart.
Merry’s particular kind of boundarylessness is what we call biomorphic abstraction, and a fine example of it can be seen in Micropose, one of the paintings I personally consider to be one of her finest pieces of work, perhaps because it so well articulates the key continuity aspect I’ve witnessed in her overall oeuvre. From the appropriate aerial distance, Micropose offers us a prime example of what I’ve identified as her pictorial suppleness. Its bold gestural stance clearly is a raw retinal celebration of expressionistic colours and pure form encountered as content; a biomorphic form which also resembles for me a landscape viewed from the height of a jet airplane passing over and across rivers, fields, towns, roads, buildings, and anything else we may wish to hallucinate while engaging in my favourite pass time when dealing with great painters and fine painting: Reverie.
Dig 1 2002 Under the Piano 2013
The fluidity of forms in both canvases, along with their shared palette and platonic love affair between the organic and the architectural realms, makes them both obvious cousins, however distantly related. In a manner similar to Wolf Kahn, Merry has staged a family reunion where all styles are equally welcome. In Under the Piano, we are confronted with a glorious architectural cluster of buildings, windows, doors, and the same (to my eye) street, which we are viewing from the vertiginous heights of Dig 1. Personally I find the push and pull of perspective, vantage, height, angle, a simultaneously close up or far away composition, to be both compelling and charming.
Namaste 17 2005 Prelude Op. 28 No. 7 (Chopin) 2013
It is the psychological distance from what we are viewing that distinguishes her works. That is the opening for me: the secret pictorial architecture of her work provided a more suitable method for accessing the coded messages being transmitted by the images themselves. For example, though separated by eight years, the piece called Namaste 17 from 2005 and the piece called Prelude Op. 28 from 2013 are both dealing with the same subject and theme, namely volumes in space.
To me, in point of fact, “volumes in space” is what we might call the family history and genealogy obviously at work here throughout, and even more importantly, also at play, in the creative arc of her whole career. Volumes in space may also be the ideal title for any future retrospective of this painter’s overall works from across the decades.
Paris 2014 Gaman Maman 6 2013
I found it quite natural and maybe even essential to jump ten years ahead into what is perhaps her most compelling pendulum swing, a shift back into the sub-atomic world of her recent Gaman series. These are primal paintings. Primeval paintings. They are, in fact, paintings meditating on what it means to be a painting.
Gaman 6 also has a crystalline structure referencing both classical mosaics and, ironically perhaps, the pixilated surfaces of digital computer media, and is therefore poised in a dramatically ambiguous realm that embraces technology while at the same time holding on to the tradition of tactile canvas-based image transmission. Even in today’s flickering digital world, the archaic and alchemical domain of painting is alive and well. Images such as Gaman Maman could never be created by a photographic print, or a film, or a video, or a romp through the playground of computerized pixels, even though they sometimes do resemble the interference pattern of an electronic transmission.
Jean Claude 2003 To the Moon 6 2006 Gaman Maman 8 2015
Often, one painting really does seem to be continued beyond its frame of reference and to be completed in another painting entirely. This aspect of their proportional harmonies and calm ratios can be somewhat disconcerting at first. In many respects the painter who most informs her path, maybe even more than Still, the one who so inspired her early on, is another American artist, Richard Diebenkorn. The pictorial dialogue he established for himself, a quiet chat between interiors, streets, landscapes and abstracts, has the most clearly defined resemblance to Merry’s own aesthetic agenda. Another example of her refined dialectic at work here, is synthesizing the real, the imaginary and the abstract in a manner reminiscent of Diebenkorn’s own serial flexibility, and is charmingly emphasized by the echoes between Jean Claude, 2003, To the Moon, from 2006, and Gaman 8, from 2015. The resonance between sub-atomic interior worlds and lofty aerial views of land or street are very visibly present in this trio of images.
Rustle of Spring, (Sinding) Gaman Maman 10 2013
At first, Rustle appears to be almost a Kandinsky kind of visual dance with forms frolicking across a pure void expanse. But one quickly reorients one’s senses and realizes that Rustle and Gaman Maman 10, both from the fruitful year of 2013, are engaged in a dramatic visual dance of sorts (but to quite different orchestras) with Rustle suggesting both music and movement in an abstract manner and Gaman 10 presenting us with a swaying field of strokes that not only shares a similar contrast of tonal surface and sonic depth but also perhaps references a literal field of grass or wheat. Both of them ripple with wonder.
The cold earth slept below; Above Gaman Maman 1 2013
the cold sky shone (P. Shelley) 2014
Together, landscape and abstract form a lusty fuel for artists capable of balancing the pictorial tensions between them and resolving the apparent contradictions they share in a kind of unified field. Two fine examples of such a unified field are in fact the subtle fields presented in Cold Earth and Gaman Maman 1. Both are open spaces, and offer us a ritual of looking, of gazing into a distance that is actually also inside us. One of the secrets of the continuum link between her abstracts and landscapes is that they convey to us the essence of a kind of huge interiority.
Could this series just as easily be either shimmering beads strung on strands of light, corn kernels growing on a sultry blue cob, scales on surreal aquatic creatures, cells in the palm of your hand, stones placed methodically in a classical Japanese Zen garden, or simply serene gestures resulting from a contemplative state of mind? These Gamans are anything we see, yet most poignantly, they are maps: of calm detachment.
Merry’s images are not exactly places, or locations, or situations. To me they are more like states: provisional and conditional pictorial experiences that represent flux. Sometimes they represent flux realistically and representationally, other times they represent flux at the sub-atomic or quantum level, where form and content are allowed to dance together with considerable abandon. Every one of them is basically a constellation of one kind or another.
Winter Zen 6 2016 Gaman Maman 13 2013 Escarpment 3 2015
Meanwhile the marvelous trio of Gaman Maman 13 from 2013, bracketed with Escarpment 3, from 2015, and Winter Zen 6, from 2016, are perhaps the strongest evidence yet that there is an unconscious basement coherence, proportional harmony and profound pattern recognition available to the viewer who is willing to take the time to dream with eyes wide open. Their almost monochrome meditation on distance and closeness reward the careful viewer with a stillness much needed in today’s hyper and hectic world. There is also a freedom and abandonment in her work that is a welcome respite from tumult and tension, a return to nature in whatever disguises it assumes. Her true subject is the act of seeing, distilled down to a kind of balsamic reduction of sight itself.
What her paintings abandon is not artistic restraint, since they are all consistently rigorous, meticulous, disciplined and almost stately; instead what they abandon is the conceptually fenced in categories of art history which are often mistakenly imposed on artists who are tricked into satisfying our own conventional expectations of what a painting is, what it looks like, what it should do for us and to us.
One of the ingredients in the mix that makes this artist worth following and collecting is the fact that in addition to working in a self-directed manner on images that resonate for her specific aesthetic, she is never going to make a work for someone that runs contrary to her own ethos, which holds her in good stead when she returns to her instinctive process. She is an active explorer of her own artistic unconscious: an artist who can command the impulses and drives that consume them and direct them to a constructive purpose, that of communication with the larger cultural world, with other people and eventually with art history itself, is an artist that will succeed regardless of the outcomes or challenges they encounter.
“Whether I'm making an abstract or representational piece,” Merry has effectively explained, “I'm feeling the thickness and thinness, the drag, smear, stroke, scrape and blend of colour. Every mark is a decision in composition, a tactile balance of tension and cohesion.” Most artists can express their embodied meaning well in the artifacts they produce and not many can shift to the linguistic realm to convey their own intentions. Merry however has hit upon what I consider the key and pivotal content that makes her forms so alluring and her work both accessible and challenging at the same time. They abound in the “tactile balance of tension and cohesion”. Her paintings all speak in an equally cool, clear voice. Such a virtuous balance might be the result of studying at multiple art schools devoted to forging both a foundational grasp of real world ethos as well as a commanding grasp of otherworldly abstraction and conceptual rigor; by attending the Ontario College of Art and Design, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the Slade School of Fine Art in London England, where she completed her Post Graduate Diploma. It’s called covering all the aesthetic bases.
Content in conversation. Frozen music. Architecture of dreams. A world inside the world. Where Sarah Merry lives. She moves from landscapes to mindscapes and back again, with the ease and finesse of a seasoned traveler through fields of vision. There is no map needed to follow her work, just a readiness for the next journey beyond borders.
I suspect that Merry is a painter not only worth watching but also worth thanking, in appreciation for the meaning of what her works embody: the pleasures of perception, pure and simple. To coin a suitable phrase, the proof is in the painting, and the ample evidence is also recursive, accumulating over two decades of rigorous exploration.