Merion Estes: Dystopia
CB1 Gallery, Los Angeles
April 18 - May 30, 2015
BY MEGAN ABRAHAMS, MAY 2015
If her alluring view of a pending dystopian future is prophetic, at least there is solace in the visions of beauty Merion Estes portrays, despite their accompanying portent of darkness and doom. The artist’s tapestry-like mixed media painted-cloth collages are rich with color, symbolism and a beguiling narrative rooted in a kind of hybrid mythology. They suggest exotic realms, distant landscapes, skyscapes connected to the far reaches of the cosmos, seascapes, and underwater panoramas. Fluid wavy ribbons of color created from strips of cloth, link this intriguing vision to the ocean’s flow of water and life. Glitter and sweeping brushstrokes of bright colored acrylic paint dash across the surface, infusing graphic contrast, emphasis, and contemporary energy to compositions that seem to derive from adopted traditional icons and a fusion of cultural influences.
Estes repurposes cloth -- most notably batik and printed fabric from Asia and Africa -- sourced online and from shops in downtown Los Angeles and Chinatown. The fabrics feature recurring motifs -- dragons, elephants, butterflies, flowers, fish, birds, eyes -- which Estes cuts out and introduces into her compositions in repeated patterns, imbuing the representative symbols with new contextual significance. Borrowing from textile production, long considered a feminine art, the artist’s work is a contemporary heir of the Pattern and Decoration Movement of the 1970s. She seamlessly combines ornamental elements with new material -- often found -- in a harmonious synthesis of abstraction and decoration combined with representational allusions. Found motifs and primary elements are interwoven in a balanced synthesis. In Fire Power, (2014, Fabric collage; acrylic and glitter on fabric, 64 x 69 inches), the artist has collaged bands of fabric in layers, upon which she has applied paint. The borrowed design motifs of eyes and flowers have been cut from fabric and superimposed into the composition. Dramatic flowers on elongated stems loom out of the background like an alien plant species. The foreground landscape is populated by watching eyes -- suggesting omnipresent silent witnesses of an earthly sentient consciousness.
The dystopian theme stems from the artist’s concern with the fragility of life and the calamity wrought by man’s intervention into our delicate and dwindling earthly paradise. As such, death is embroidered as a persistent thread in this series. The striking harmony of Memento Mori, (2014, Fabric collage; acrylic and spray paint on fabric, 64 x 84 inches) still cannot help but remind us we must die. This vast wide scale vista is permeated with darkness and an aura of foreboding. A horizon of dark rolling hills in the middle ground ebbs into a foreground that implies waves of black water. The silhouette of a crow reinforces the implication of death. In the background, elephant faces in celestial bubbles are collaged on the surface of a mottled gray sky with a texture resembling rice paper.
Emerging out of the darkness are glimmers of light -- and perhaps even of hope. Los Alamos Sunset (2014, Fabric collage; acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 62.5 x 79.5 inches) is characterized by a diagonal rush of energy and color raging across the surface from the bottom left to the upper right corner of the canvas. Vibrant cadmium yellows, oranges and reds emit a blaze. Rays of red and orange encircle the seemingly tie-dyed setting sun in the center foreground. Elaborate butterflies excised from fabric are integrated into the stunning glow of sky. Perhaps our ultimate doom could occur with such a sunset, resplendent in a glorious blaze of radiant light. If the work were meant to represent sunrise, it might have been more hopeful.
In her affinity for water, the sea, and the integration of found materials into a painted surface, the imagery is reminiscent of Los Angeles artist Miriam Wosk, who was similarly interested in exploring time, space, life and the cosmos. Wosk was also an admirer of Robert Kushner and Miriam Shapiro, other artists of the Pattern and Decoration movement. Similar to those of Wosk, Estes’ abstract collages use repurposed materials in a lexicon reflecting a cultivated feminine perspective and approach.
Estes’ works are not complex only because of the structured optical interplay of multi-layered materials. They are also beguiling visions of great dynamism, color and meaning, with an embedded cautionary subtext of impending danger. Nailed to the wall, her canvases hang freeform, un-stretched, inhabiting space with an organic rawness as if evolving directly out of their surroundings. In them, Estes explores our relationship with nature, the planet, femininity, and the sublime. Gripping in its beauty, depth and density, the haunting rhythm of repeated symbols and exotic motifs borrowed and transposed into stunning new settings cunningly enchant us -- even as they issue a dire warning. WM
Megan Abrahams is a Los Angeles-based writer and artist. The managing editor of Fabrik Magazine, she is also a contributing art critic for Art Ltd., Fabrik, ArtPulse and Whitehot magazines. Megan attended art school in Canada and France. She is currently writing her first novel and working on a new series of paintings.
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