Leedy-Voulkos Art Center
At first glance, the life's work of Hugh Merrill is similar to a memory, as though viewed in a rearview mirror of a car traveling through Anywhere, USA. These fleeting visions of a private Americana, interspersed with its symbols, icons and structures, propel the viewer into an unsteady grasp on the car door and finally to turn back to see what may be left of the actual imagery. Visuals in this exhibition appear to toggle between two separate modes of thought, the formal presence of studio work and the more informal presentation of community art projects. Subsequently, these divisions of thought merge together through his creative, collaborative and individual processes.
Merrill is a strong presence in the Kansas City arts community. A professor of Printmaking and Community Arts at the Kansas City Art Institute since 1976, he is also currently the executive director of Chameleon Arts and Youth Development Agency, a center for arts education and creative resource for disenfranchised and marginalized communities in Kansas City, Missouri.*
The title, Divergent Consistencies, is revealing for the identity and characterization of work in the exhibition and the many courses and varied viewpoints of these projects over time. A display tightly packed with 40 years of art making was formed by a range of experience, from Merrill’s southern political roots to the current difficulties for the homeless in Kansas City and for other populations abroad. Distinctly dense and detailed imagery reflects a transient and connective process between structural and social architecture, paired with local and extended culture. The relationship between our surroundings and ourselves bounces quickly between the conceptual, digital, graphic, and face-to-face interactions.
Merrill’s early prints, Exedra (1969) and Baltimore Walker (1969), are unpretentious beginnings to a tradition of intaglio and relief-based works. Produced very early in his exploration of print media as an undergraduate student, these prints are what he refers to as some of his first. They feature underlying themes of space, linear form and hesitant abstraction. Construction, deconstruction, and a disdain of traditional modernism are all seen in these simple origins.
In 1973 while attending Yale University, he produced Object and Object I, which preview much of his future print work. Both suggest very specific elements similar to building blocks, with spaces divided to suggest they are moving through the visual plane. At the same time the pieces appear to be both a type of patterned organic and a manufactured quasi-machinery; they appear to be unfolded, moving past the viewer and ready to quickly collapse together at any point. The use of organic and machine themes remains constant even in the artist’s current works.
In the mid 1980s Merrill began work on numerous series of sequential etchings that would gain significant notoriety in the printmaking community. His first museum exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was a sequential series of etchings entitled the Lucky Dragon Suite (1985). Merrill is less interested in editions than in the manipulation of the print matrix itself, with an underlying interest in simultaneously constructing the image and deconstructing the etching plate. This series exemplifies a mode of production where multiple stages of the same etching plate are printed and almost immediately re-worked.
The Facts of Fictions series is a continuation of this method of working. Produced from 1995 to 1998, they underscore an in-depth understanding of his ability to fill a visual and creative niche. His commentary about the series comes from an interview in the late 1990s with Jim Leedy: “The destruction and distortion of this construct through the process of acid attacking metal is both the entropy that causes decay in all things and the reclamation of the natural process over the built environment.”**
The images in these pieces completely assault the paper they are printed on. They take on the illusion of moving living objects and fields bounding with a trapped urgency. The manipulation of space in relationship to the suggestion of spatial memory is a constant in Merrill’s etchings since 1969. Sequential prints derived from this method are at once weighty and ephemeral in their character, as though they document a growth process for an organic entity. They have a time-lapse photography feel in both their progression and their imagery, informed by processes of nature and industry. One sees remnants of past images, but attention is quickly drawn to the next stage as the eye moves forward to the next print.
Our City, Ourselves began in the 1990s as a collaborative project with conceptual artist Christian Boltanski. The project was conceived as a non-edited arts action allowing people to become part of a museum exhibition by copying materials they choose to represent them. This art action took place at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1996, and Merrill considers it to be his first community arts project.
In a process identical to its predecessor, Our City, Ourselves is a grisaille snapshot of the Kansas City community, on the evening of the exhibition opening September 4, 2009. The guests in attendance participated directly in the exhibition: images displayed on the gallery walls are copied from items or images they had with them, including their friends, families and selves. Through the medium of xerography, we see a portrait of the opening attendees — birth control pills, traditional family portraits, and lots of hands, mostly open. These images meld together for the viewer to create a mini salon-style visual starkly in contrast to the formal presentation of studio works in the gallery. Through repetition and an alternative context, mundane everyday items such as keys and change become a mirror and recorder for the immediacy of the project and, as importantly, a sense of the unnoticed passage of time.
The Pools of Belief (2005–present) use the medium of photography to capture water inside a small child’s inflatable wading pool on a sunny summer day. The photos are then transformed into mats similar to what you would see on the floor of a big box store or a car dealership to advertise a product as you walk across the vinyl floor. The pieces are bright blue in a range of hues and tones and capture the peripheral reflection remembered from spending hours in pools as a child. They have a childlike quality and vision to them, with popular appeal as mousetrap boats carry pieces of paper printed with the words "I believe in," with room for willing participants to write their own words and opinions, to add their direct input to the piece.
The range of belief on these pieces is varied yet surprisingly similar. Overwhelmingly, they generate a positive response in opposition to a negative one. Mundane remarks are expressed, such as "breakfast" or "cheese." Many of the responses indicate process such as "asking why" or "keeping in touch." Cultural references are common such as "beer," "ghosts," and "the stock market." Participants also believe in "art," as well as "black and white," and predictably, "me." In 2005, first presented in Poznan, Poland and then Berlin, Germany, this project creates an effervescent and energized feel to conceptual art where the participants are engaged and enthused, and the exhibition section of the project retains the immediacy of the original actions.
Later works in the Pools of Belief series contain political and military references as well, coupled with butterflies, warships, oilrigs and other images from popular news culture in a whirlpool spiral. Butterflies have long been famed for their transformational properties, and recently, the late MIT meterologist Edward Lorenz’s suggestive notion that small actions can transform events by causing much larger repercussions, known as the butterfly effect.*** These pieces tap into a media-based thread that Merrill has obscured and twisted. The use of spiral imagery is closely associated with transformation, nature and eternity. It has also been thought to be a symbol of life source or a spiritual journey.****
Both Inland Sea (2008) and The Aspiring Astronomers (2005) also prominently feature the spiral. Inland Sea contains a depiction of a body of water held together by an artificial edifice, occupying the pictorial frame with a finely tooled and controlled spiral. It appears to swirl within a space containing organic cellular forms. The strong black lines guide the momentum in this piece. It depicts a shaped dam containing a strong body of water, countered with a whimsical feel achieved through the use of specific color as well as line quality and form. This symbol takes on a heavier tone in Pools of Belief, while the same shape takes on a capricious tone in this and other pieces.
In the 2008 work Trench, a detailed depiction of a moat is seemingly hand dug into the earth to ensnare a dual-colored pool of water. The image is divided by a strong black linear form, leaving the viewer to wonder if it is being built, dismantled, or simply abandoned. A formidable impediment, the Trench presents a fortification that will not easily give up its prize prisoner. The directional dark lines further suggest an expansion away from the trench altogether. Instead of a ditch, like many trenches, this one works to keep the body of water inside, as opposed to draining it away.
In Merrill’s public art projects, he moves from creating visual structures to working with members of different communities to transform existing structures into visually enhanced reflections of the people who visit and use these areas on a daily basis. The emphasis and source of visual input in Millennium Voices, (2000) a project in Dania, Florida, and Art of Memory, (2004) in Columbia, Missouri, is the participation of the community. A personal archiving process of everyday items and ideas achieves the nuts-and-bolts creation of the visual images and their content, transforming them into culturally relevant projects.
Merrill’s most recent project, Kenya, uses a series of sketchbook portraits made during interviews with Kenya residents in 2009. Many of these people are disabled physically or emotionally, which is easily seen in their depictions. The gestured effects of the pen and ink with watercolor images have an immediate and intimate feel. Though decidedly raw in comparison with other pieces exhibited, they effectively illustrate their source.
Shown next to the Kenya portraits, poster-like photo collages reveal a documentary approach to their subjects. The addition of personal objects, — a wire sculpture in the shape of a bicycle and a contemporary metal purse made of bottle caps — give us a glimpse of what appear to be mundane tourist souveniers. Through the appearance of these objects, the absence of luxury from the Kenya subjects' daily lives comes into clearer focus.
The exhibition overall reveals the beginnings and evolution of works Merrill produced as a student while working in a reduction based paradigm of personal studio space. By further progression of specific methods, the artist moved to working with whole communities in brick and mortar structures within those locales. Merrill has worked with students and communities extensively throughout the United States as well as Kenya, Guatemala, Cuba, and other countries.
The show reflects a reevaluation, retooling and chronicling of integrated studio and community art. What began as a visual interest in spaces informed by architectural surroundings has moved full circle to involving much broader segments of the arts and local communities, including their architectural landmarks. The relationship between origin and fruition is extremely close in this work. Although the community work and the studio work are strikingly different aesthetically, they are linked and amplified by their beginnings and the process of making art.
The use of iconic and popular symbols contrasted with political and social statements connect Merrill’s studio work and community work in surprising ways. The artworks are at once organic and machined, mystical, pictorial — some indecisive in allegory. Many are then sprinkled with a human presence. The exhibition is socially relevant and political, yet deeply personal in vision. In many ways, the work lies in wait and ambushes viewers as they move along their path, through the gallery. Like any unsuspected temptation, Our City, Ourselves subtlety worms its way into the public consciousness, cleverly subverting an unsuspecting audience into a double take.
*Merrill began teaching after attending the Maryland Institute College of Art as an undergraduate and Yale University as an MFA candidate. His studio work is in the collections of many major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the New York Public Library print collection, and the Harvard University Art Museum. His work is also in numerous corporate and private collections. He began his work as a community artist and advocate in 1996, through a collaborative project and exhibition with conceptual artist Christian Boltanski.
***“Edward Lorenz, father of chaos theory and butterfly effect, dies at 90,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT News, April 16, 2008. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/obit-lorenz-0416.html p. 1