Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Beyond Borders: The Paintings of Sarah Merry

Gaman Maman 8 (2013) by Sarah Merry. (All works referenced are oil on canvas)

“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 . . ." – Clyfford Still
Imagine a world where it’s perfectly acceptable to derive pleasure and joy from whatever kind of art you happen to like, with or without the stamp of approval from some museum director or other. A world where different styles of art are merely shifting countries on a map with blurring borders which easily allows you to travel freely from one to the other without a taste passport stamped by an official in a rumpled uniform that stands for uniformity and not much else. In such a world, the value of a picture, whether it was a drawing, a painting, a photograph or even, for that matter, a movie, 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, a small but inviting country whose borders are only as firm as the imagination of the visitor and viewer. This is what painting looks like when an artist drives at full speed forward with their foot off the stylistic brakes but with a steady hand on the thematic steering wheel and a firm grasp of the principles at work below the surface of art history. Why slow down as you approach an aesthetic intersection when you can clearly recognize a road sign that links Johannes Vermeer with Helen Frankenthaler, a sign which is telling you to accelerate even more, to speed to your heart’s content? The answer is clear once we become conversant with the subterranean and interior dimensions of painting.

Consider it done, because your heart’s content is precisely what should guide you in making the decision to purchase a piece for art for your own personal environment. Visual art, and especially painting, has always been the passionate pursuit of an elusive prey without a speed limit: a domain where sometimes the pursuer can even be ahead of the pursued, and where the astute consumer can be comfortable conversing casually with the artisan who makes their dreams available for your private access. 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.

It is, in fact, both plausible and possible to erase the borderlines between motifs and meanings altogether and engage in a kind of free fall from aesthetic rules and regulatory traditions in order to fully embrace what the making of images is really all about: the reveries of pure seeing for its own sake and a joyful celebration of the retina. In this optical playground of hers, over repeated visits during 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.

Winter Zen 1 (2016)

As the French poet and critic AndrĂ© Breton once said, speaking of surrealism generally but in words that are equally applicable to all art-making across the board, “The world seems like a cryptogram that is indecipherable only so long as one is not knowledgeable about the gymnastic contortions that allow one to move at will from one piece of apparatus to another.” If we think of the art world as the gymnasium and different styles as the apparatuses, we 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 maneuvers on all of the 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 paradoxical phenomenon would be one of her Ice Hut paintings, images based on actual documentary photographs of functioning huts in a somewhat forbidding environment. This piece is clearly a landscape, seemingly depicted from an aerial view, and yet it is simultaneously a still life, approaching an assemblage of objects strewn across a geological table-like terrain. It is also, without much effort, perceivable as a portrait of the activity, of a livelihood, and even as a portrait of the very objects themselves, in themselves, in what one could easily call a phenomenological manner. Phenomenology is the study of the lived experience of actuality, in the world as we live it directly and as we encounter it through our personal interactions. That is precisely what many of Merry’s images appear to me to convey, regardless of their style, format, theme or motif: what it means to have eyes to see.

Ironically, considering its presumptive stature as an abstraction, a painting like Gaman 8 is also simultaneously a landscape, with an apparent building structure, an urban cluster, a horizon line, a sun-like orb, and 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 the skin on our own hand. This push and pull of perspective, the constant shifting of angles and levels of reality and surreality, is what gives her work a lively and unexpected zest: it is almost a visual spice-box of optical flavours, even what the poet Leonard Cohen once called the spice-box of earth.

When I first encountered the versatile range of visual approaches in Merry’s work, I was interested in focusing on the diversity as the main element; however, it then suddenly occurred to me that no, no, no, that wasn’t the way in at all. The really impressive thing is the actual continuity between the varied styles and dialects she employs, and the very tangible continuum which begins to take shape over the various bodies of work she has produced. Continuum is a tricky word, one which has nothing to do with vaguely romantic notions of merely continuing onward and upward but rather 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. That suddenly became a far better template for approaching the work than its mere diversity of content or the seductive tension between representation and abstraction which appears to be at the forefront.

Escarpment (2015)

The key division for me was one not of stylistic territoriality but of proximity of vision: the designations of the macroscopic or microscopic. The macro realm contains environments -- landscapes, both rural and urban, including the portrayal of objects on tabletops or window ledges, which strike me as being a unique kind of distilled life -- and the micro realm contains apparent abstractions which seem to me to operate at a particle or sub-atomic level. By proximity I mean the perceptual distance for the viewer: far away from, being outdoor perspectives of town and country with either naturally growing organic objects, or the built environment of cities; close up to, being intimate arrangements of the thingness of our lives (bottles, flowers, furniture, cups and saucers, fruits, etc.); and finally, inside of, being the hyper-real domain of atoms, electrons, and molecules, which are both familiar forms and yet dreamlike depictions of the impossibly tiny worlds inside the world.

It rapidly dawned on me that it is this psychological distance from what we were viewing that distinguishes her works, not the supposed stylistic borders with which we usually define and delimit the painted content of “pictures.” That was the opening for me: the secret back-door entrance to the pictorial architecture of her work. And it provided me with a far more suitable method for accessing the coded messages being transmitted by the images themselves. For example, though separated by thirteen years, the piece called Turf from 2002 and the piece called Escarpment from 2015 are both dealing with the same subject and theme, namely volumes in space. Turf is technically abstract, and yet when I tilted it ninety degrees on its side, it aligned perfectly with the geological formation presented in Escarpment, right down to the rivers of melting glacier-like ice carving their way through both images. The fluidity of forms and vivid portrayal of frozen time featured in both canvases made them obvious cousins, however distant.

Gaman Maman 7 (2013)

Similarly, although Gaman 7 is ostensibly abstract, it is difficult not to notice that it not only still contains a horizon line in almost exactly the same position and ratio as Red Stable two years later but it also has an amorphous but easily discernible glacial mountain range hovering in a manner highly compatible with both the escarpment pictures as well as Cold Earth. Gaman 7 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. The word transmission is the key here: a coded message is being transmitted by the artist’s hand to your retina; each picture whispers that there is no need for boundaries or borders apart from your own need for a false sense of security and the superstition that everything defined is also understood.

Two other 2015 landscapes, Snowshoe and a second coming of Escarpment, also contain parallel horizon lines, mountain ranges, and diminishing perspectives with disappearing fence posts. It is eminently possible to begin to see, in the frozen abstract music of Gaman 7, a snowy expanse of winter energy which has traversed the focal lens and depth of field required for something close and something far to both be clearly visible. In the case of Merry’s work, for me the two realms of realistic representation and free-form 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; it is also very refreshing in the extreme. It is both/and.

Having first been introduced in about 1903 by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, abstract painting has been with us now for 114 years, and it was Kandinsky who first identified the necessary flexibility and aesthetic suppleness required to move from one apparatus to another with some agility. The main issue for him, and one which remains crucial today, is whether the method employed as a delivery system for images is true to its own nature, not necessarily what it looks like on the outside. "All methods are sacred if they are internally necessary.” The great experimenter declared, “All methods are sins if they are not justified by internal necessity." Today, in what has come to be called the postmodern age (after the monolithic hierarchy of modernism had been replaced by a more eclectic diversity starting in about the mid-60’s), the inner necessity at work is far more versatile and can easily accommodate multiple stylistic formats for delivering images.

Micropose (2013)
The key is still that they must remain true to their own essential characters and personalities, whether in motif they may be the kind of distilled life paintings Merry does of table-top domestic objects, or elegant accumulations of everyday items on window ledges, or bustling streetscapes with architecturally compelling storefront windows, or rural landscapes capturing natural organic life in any season, or even her crystalline abstractions where the figure-ground relationship has been eliminated and only optical splendour remains. Every one of them is basically a constellation of one kind or another.

Merry’s particular kind of boundary-less-ness is what we call biomorphic abstraction, and a fine example of it can be seen in one of the paintings I personally consider to be one of her finest pieces of work, perhaps because it also articulates some of the parallels I’ve been making in her different styles, formats and motifs, as well as 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. True, its bold gestural stance clearly is a raw retinal celebration of expressionistic colours and pure form encountered as content; yet when placed in a juxtaposed posture next to an image such as All the Fields from a year later, suddenly what I’m hinting at comes into dramatic focus. Obviously it is first and foremost a biomorphic form, and is also one that has a haunting echo of the pyramidal snowy stand of trees adjacent, but more than that, it 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 pastime when dealing with great painters and fine painting – reverie.

This artist’s image motifs are not exactly places, or locations, or situations. To me they are more like states: provisional and conditional pictorial experiences which 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. Again, what they 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. What if, instead of expectations, we allowed ourselves to visit that unobstructed, unhindered, and undefined country of images I referenced in my opening salvo: a place full of paintings without any aesthetic or stylistic passports to be checked? A place where only our own pleasure is what really matters. Again, I invite you to imagine just such a place.

All the Fields (2014)

In the broad geography of the imagination I have posited here, we collide headlong with the irony of something which Aristotle, the inventor of the formal study of aesthetics, claimed was essential to the making of all valid art: the domain of mimesis, the careful copying of nature that made art beautiful because it echoed the perform 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 Rustle of Spring from 2013 and the Ice Hut image from two years later are still nonetheless members of the same pictorial family.

At first, Rustle appears to be almost a Kandinsky kind of visual dance with forms frolicking across a pure void expanse, while the hut image suggests a real, if tiny, architectural edifice with a practical purpose and function, the catching of fish in an arctic environment. Yet when we contemplate their content and flux-like message in conjunction we can begin to see that the hut rendering is semi-abstract while the primavera-based rustle 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 apparently aleatory alignment of nearly submerged objects emerging into the sunlight? One more example of the happy pictorial marriage between the real and the imagined.

Rustle of Spring (2013)
In addition to being an art critic and curator for many years, I’ve also been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association and also the Gallery and Museums Association, as well as having been both a dealer and a corporate art consultant. So I’ve had the benefit and advantage of taking a long-term view and a long-range perspective on the coming and going of many, many artists, especially painters. People have often heard the old adage that there’s nothing new under the sun, and while that might sound true on the surface and is true in relative terms, occasionally new suns appear in the painting firmament. One such sun was quoted at the opening of this essay. The light such a being sheds is both far-reaching and long-lasting, and every so often it is possible to observe the diverse exotic life forms which come into existence as a result of the photosynthesis which that light permits.

Sarah Merry is just such an exotic life form, or at least her versatile paintings are. I’m not exactly saying that she’s the greatest thing since sliced bread; that might be too much. But I am certainly saying that she is a new way of slicing bread. 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. The corollary is that every painting is also an embodied meaning, that it assumes its shape and form as a result of the time and place in which its maker lives.

This might be why I suspect that the appropriately named 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, and a perception beyond borders. 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.

Contemporaneous with this same rustling image are two more semi-abstract studies of form and flux. In the same way that Micropose seems to suggest an aerial view of a landscape with varied contour formations, Nocturne (named for a Chopin piece of piano music) startles us with its acid lime-green ostensible abstract-expressionist intensity while at the same time paradoxically presenting yet another aerial view of an urban intersection of streets and buildings. Though suggesting a vantage point that could only result from a satellite image from outer space, it nonetheless also offers an exotic counterpoint to the ironically titled Under the Piano, in which we are confronted with a glorious architectural cluster of buildings, windows, doors, and the same street (to my eye) which we were viewing from the vertiginous heights of Nocturne. 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.

Under the Piano (2013)

Again, it is the versatility and diversity that captivates to be sure, but even more importantly, I think, the continuity, the shocking continuity, I would say, between a representational and an abstract image which share a sensibility, a spirit, a healthy compulsion even, and one which further increases our appreciation for this artist’s flexibility and the 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 preferred 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.

“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.

Nocturne In E Flat Major, Op.9 No.2 (Chopin) (2013)
The obvious natural freedom of their array in parallel subjects, themes, motifs and format, is the element that makes them most rewarding: the way they establish a conceptual conflict between their form and content, one which is resolved the way satisfying music will resolve the tilting lean between harmony and consonance, married with disruption and dissonance. Such a virtuous balance might be the result of studying at multiple art schools devoted to forging a foundational grasp of real-world ethos as well as a commanding grasp of otherworldly abstraction and conceptual rigor -- among them a merging of styles reflected, perhaps, in her having attended the Ontario College of Art and Design and the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and topped off with a dollop of the Slade School of Fine Art in London, England, where she completed her Masters degree. It’s called covering all the aesthetic bases.

I suspect that one of the other ingredients in the mix that makes this artist worth considering 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 also quite open to dealing with clients on a commission basis. Although she is never going to make a work for someone that runs contrary to her own ethos, the interactive skills and ability to interpret a client’s environmental needs, whether they be personal or corporate, hold her in good stead when she returns to the private instincts she employs in the execution of her own obsessions. I use this word in the most positive sense, in terms of her being an active explorer of her own artistic unconscious: an artist who can command the impulses and drives that consume her and direct her to a constructive purpose, that of communication with the larger cultural world, with other people and eventually with art history itself, is an artist who will succeed regardless of the outcomes or challenges she encounters.

Having had over a century to become comfortable with abstraction, I’m pleased to say that our culture has also re-embraced representation and realized that realism, even if it is tempered by a postmodern quirkiness, is not only acceptable but desirable as a delivery system for images. Together, the revolving poles of landscape, still life and abstract can 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 Quietly Shining and Cold Earth, both from 2014. Both are open spaces in time; they offer us a ritual of looking, of gazing into a distance which is actually also inside us. One of the secrets of the continuum link between her abstracts, landscapes, streetscapes, and tabletops, is that they convey to us the essence of a kind of huge interiority.

... quietly shining to the quiet Moon (S.T. Coleridge) (2014)

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. But this is not a sacred separate from nature; it is an earthy sacred.

In some of her works the actual subject being depicted doesn’t strike the viewer as a stand of trees or a range of mountains, which often can be interchangeable volumes in space, but really that of duration. They convey the passing of time, the accretion of moments into mountains. Time solidifies before our eyes.

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, accustomed as we are to abrupt arrivals and departures. They are visual poems.

At first glance, two early abstracts such as Number One and Number Two might appear to be almost classical expressionism from the pure Hans Hoffman or de Kooning school of looking. But once I garnered an admission into the secret subterranean level of continuity at work, I once again saw maps of a territory.

Gaman Maman 2 (2015)
With this optical and structural passport in hand, 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.

Could not number one and two in this series just as easily actually 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 the classical Japanese game of go, or simply serene gestures resulting from a contemplative state of mind? The Gamans are also maps: of calm detachment.

I am pleased to report that even in today’s flickering digital world, the archaic and alchemical domain of painting is alive and well. Images such as these 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. They are haptic, and so are we. Remember?

Forms in flux. Content in conversation. Frozen music. Architecture of dreams. Algebra of desires. Calculus of heaven. House of breath. The feathery world inside the world. Where Sarah Merry lives.

We have moved from landscapes to mindscapes and back again, with the ease and finesse of a seasoned traveler through fields of vision. You don’t need a passport; there is no map to follow. Replenished and refreshed, with clean and clear eyes, we are ready for the next stage of the journey beyond borders.

Sarah Merry is an independent and self-represented artist; her biography, exhibition history and works can be viewed on her website.

– Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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