The Artist’s Studio
in cooperation with Galerie Roger Bellemare and Galerie Christian Lambert, Montreal
May 5, 2018 to May 26, 2018
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, May, 2018
This stunning complement and counterpoint to the artist’s current gallery exhibition in downtown Montreal highlights works curated in his home studio that enlarge the purview of the gallery show, including works executed while on a road trip through the American southwest, in situ renderings of some of the great works of land art by artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and others, and studies of the studio and its contents in a state of continuing transformation.
An artist's studio is a holy place (or its opposite, as was the case with Francis Bacon's studio at 7, Reece Mews in South Kensington, London) and Michael Merrill’s is no exception. It a glorious glut of works executed in different media and its decanting here opens an extraordinary window on his practice. The confines are not expansive but they are a testimonial to his work ethic and Renaissance spirit of industry. They give us a compelling glimpse of the artist's long and luminous career as an indentured servant of his studio.
In addition to the works cited above, there are also works executed while trekking for miles through the caves of Lascaux in France, High points for Merrill on that trip included Niaux with its rough floor where all visitors had to use flashlights (and thus he experienced the caves as the original painters had under the light of their torches), Pech Merle with its amazing cathedral-like spaces and intra-uterine colour and the majestic Font-de-Gaume – all bewitchingly arrayed with a wealth of prehistoric polychrome cave paintings and engravings dating to the Magdalenian period. The experience of the cave walls in the 25 kilometres of the Vezere valley between Montignac and Les Eyzies was a revelation for a painter who relished the vicarious pleasures of dipping one foot into living history. He intuitively understood the cave painters’ use of perspective and cunning employment of rock extrusions and fissures to advance their tableaux vivant. The works exhibited in his studio are but the tip of a proverbial iceberg.
The studio exhibition also includes places sited on sorties through his neighbourhood of Ville Emard in southwestern Montreal, interior studio views and so forth.
Merrill folds and unfolds space with all the deft finger work and acuity of an Origami Master, exploring both the perceived world and a more numinous reality with little regard for the status quo or orthodoxy, quotation marks or stasis. The technical virtuosity of these works is exemplary but of far more importance is their kinetic imaginative reach. Merrill explores a non-hierarchical relationship between objects and space. Shedding the skin of objects and stitching the skins back together seamlessly results in an uncanny order of amplification and plenitude.
And all this work constitutes an intricate, expansive, implied self-portrait. As he says: “The project has been an ongoing investigation of all that surrounds me from the skin jacket on outwards into the messiest contents of the environing world.”
In many of these works, Merrill the photographer enables Merrill the painter. He uses the camera to capture as many perspectives as possible on a chosen subject, in an off-the-cuff phenomenological way, and uses the harvested images afterwards as raw material for his paintings. The staggered series of eidetic variations are meticulously collated and overlapped, and the matrix in which they overlap becomes the essence of a painting. Merrill’s ethic as a painter is the replete articulation of the invariable and essential structure of the sundry objects that his optic seizes upon.
In 1993, Merrill executed a series comprising five rooms painted on spheres. Each sphere depicted the entire surrounding space of a room (ceiling, floor and four walls). The spheroid paintings led to paintings on cast body parts of the artist’s head and a foot, in 1995. The cast implies the human presence within the surrounding studio space. In 1996, the work moved out of the domestic and studio space and into the extensive series of his Panmorphic paintings proper. Merrill has returned here to the spheres. The gallery has a splendid one of the studio. There is an unpainted one resting on a plinth here that tells us the future is beckoning.
That the studio is both artist’s versatile alembic and voodoo altar is clear here, given the full gamut of his hatchling industry: its workrooms articulated around a central hub of making, the myriad paint cans an open-ended apothecary affording an endless range of colour palettes.
It should be clear by now that what Merrill does in all this work is radically inclusive. He wants to include the act of perception as integral subject matter. He travels forwards and backwards and sideways, up and down and all around the town of painting in order to ferret out its secret truths.
I think of Merrill the painter as a sort of brilliantly unorthodox ventriloquist. Ventriloquism is, of course, a performance of stagecraft in which a person (namely, the ventriloquist) successfully manipulates and morphs his or her voice so that it actually seems to issue from elsewhere and be the voice of another. Ventriloquizing means the ability to "throw" one's voice. This implies that a sound's actual physical origin has changed, when really the change has been purely perceptual. Perceptual feints, morphologies and slippages, not stasis -- here is the restless heart of this artist’s radiant work.
Merrill, seen here metaphorically knee deep in his paint, with implements at hand, surrounded by his works in progress and rumours of his avatars all about, makes his stand. This exhibition gives us rare insight into the genius that has informed and sustained his project over the course of the last 40 years. WM
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.