Oct 8 - Nov 1
Trotter&Sholer, New York, NY
By VITTORIA BENZINE October 28, 2020
The first time I walked into Future Novel, Jack Mernin’s debut NYC solo show at Trotter&Sholer, a flash of color caught my eye and set my stomach on a freefall. The red and brown hues provoking my sickness didn’t come from a canvas, but the cover of a book. For this show, Trotter&Sholer partnered with Book Club Bar “to bring viewers into conversation with Mernin,” according to a press release. Several works of literature sat stacked at the gallerists’s desk, each one an inspiration to the artist, including Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. I had acquired and read the book this Spring, at my quarantine crush’s recommendation. By Fall, I should’ve been showering him with kisses, but we stopped speaking during the Summer. I trashed this precise edition of Swann’s Way mere months prior in a desperate attempt at liberation from my heartache. I didn’t want to think about it. I was working.
I returned to Trotter&Sholer several days later to learn more about the artist behind this nearly sold out exhibition. Equipped this time with ample preparation, I could act in accordance with my higher self who tunes out her intrusive thoughts. It wasn’t until Mernin mentioned Swann’s Way that I explained my relationship to it, how it’s like a ouija board I just can’t incinerate.
Mernin’s allusion to the volume followed my brief tangent on chaos magic and quantum theory. I noted another connection — Quantum theory views time as a snake biting its own tail, and ‘serpentine’ is the first word Proust evokes for me. Conversations with Mernin mimic the conversations one might have with his work. Participants cover a lot of ground.
Future Novel actually invites intrusive thoughts. The show pulls from Mernin’s formal RISD education, twisting it with his impulse towards experimentation. The artist’s own Exhibition Statement calls the work “Self-critical while remaining open to experimental suggestion,” noting the presence of “a characteristic malleability that inspires anticipatory audience engagement.” Shortly after sitting down, Mernin asked how these works made me feel upon second assessment.
As I considered my answer to Mernin’s question, I realized that at this pivotal moment in world history, I find it difficult to view art without context. I told Mernin this, admitting my inability to experience visceral emotional reactions to visual art. Paintings predominantly inspire thoughts for me, not feelings. “I want to make people think,” Mernin remarked. After all, the statement does continue to explain that “After a painted image has been consolidated, its details unfold over time according to the specific gaze and familiarity of a beholder.”
Abstract art can seem apolitical with its absence of apparent narrative, its pure focus on aesthetic and atmosphere. However, informed by the artist’s intellectual inspirations, each work in Future Novel challenges this notion. When I asked Mernin about his opinions on beauty for beauty’s sake, he noted that pure beauty is boring. That’s why his statement lists kitsch amongst the elements explored with these most recent works, which he embarked upon shortly after quarantine’s onset. Enthusiastically, Mernin gestured back towards Swann’s Way, comparing his feelings about beauty to Proust’s description of the profile belonging to a later figure named Albertine, not beautiful but striking.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder. “He wants the viewer to bring their concerns, ideas, and intentions to the work. Rather than expressing a particular point of view, Mernin engages with his work spontaneously and unexpectedly,” continues the show’s press release. This attribute of Mernin’s work highlights its utility, its quiet revolution. Thoughtful abstract art acts as a mirror, allowing us to understand our minds a little better while contemplating its dynamic swaths of color.
Turning my eyes from the book to the large-scale canvases on the wall behind me, I regarded each work squarely. While Mernin’s paintings appear abstract at first blush, they’re actually conglomerates of many figures, some nebulous, but a shocking amount overtly representative — a stenciled bird, concrete patterns, large blocks of punctuation. I see collage, and I see my own collage in it, artifacts of undergoing an emotionally transformative period in my life in tandem with an era where the social issues that have bubbled throughout my existence are each reaching their boiling points at once. I see words — the messages I typed and dissected repeatedly before sending, the underlined passages in self-help books, screenshots of articles about calculating self-employment taxes, quotes about the ills of late-stage capitalism.
“What bugs you?” Mernin asked me next about the work. A quick answer surprised me: “the white space.” The emptiness, the deafening silence. When I heard myself ask why he included so much of it, I understood its role in the equation, activating the composition in a novel fashion. There is no emptiness, Mernin pointed out, just a swirling dance between positive and negative space. I can either join in its steps or get my toes stepped on. Mernin’s statement explains that his work achieves its aims through “the challenging, complex gesture of activating a composition in an unforeseeable manner that is contingent on its own destruction. What remains is an inherent sensibility that feels invigorating and affirming.” I remembered to relish the sensation of movement.
Mernin and I traded stories about our relationships to Proust and found deeply personal parallels. While each viewer brings their distinct perspective to works like these, through the canvas we can come to understand how every individual’s character arc encounters similar milestones. That’s the beauty of this quantum universe with no fixed beginning or end, we are all sharing the same story on our own timeline, in a completely unreplicatable way. Acknowledging this unifying fact is more than political, it’s radical.
“When you live closely to individual dramas you marvel that we do not have continuous war, knowing what nightmares human beings conceal, what secret obsessions and hidden cruelties,” Mernin’s statement quotes from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, another wellspring of inspiration. The pain, fear, and elation which exists in me also exists within every person who will encounter these works while they’re on view through November 1st. Visit Trotter&Sholer at 168 Suffolk Street to see your own narratives for yourself, reflected through the high-contrast energy of Jack Mernin’s visual arrangements. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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