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February 23 - April 21, 2005 at Mount San Antonio College Art Gallery, Pomona

by Jody Zellen

A master printer as well as mixed-media artist, Patrick Merrill’s survey of work created between 1986 and 2004 illustrates the scope of his vision. The majority of pieces on view are self-portraits. Merrill explores both the form and the emotions that the human figure is capable of expressing through the print medium. Merrill moves beyond the traditional idea that the nude male body is a classical icon--beautiful and heroic—to explore the more interesting idea that it is vulnerable and expressive.

Merrill began exhibiting his works in the 1970s. After serving in Vietnam, he returned to the Los Angeles area and took up printmaking, receiving a BFA from Cal State University Long Beach in 1976, and an MFA from Cal State Fullerton in 1994. In his work Merrill explores the pain of addiction. He states, “As an addict, my work initially was an effort in self-analysis in order to understand that particular pain. Originally seen as self-portraits, I now use the image of myself as a model for the other.”

Images of pain and suffering, of war and the agonies of life are prevalent throughout the history of the printmaking medium: think Goya’s “The Disasters of War,” or Leonard Baskin’s monumental woodcuts depicting the physicality of the human form, and Sue Coe’s political satires. Like these predecessors, Merrill uses world history, personal history, as well as the image of his body to explore states of mind and being.

“Death” from “4 Horsemen of
the Apocalypse: Famine,
War, Death, Pestulance”.

“War” from “4 Horsemen of
the Apocalypse: Famine,
War, Death, Pestulance”.

The earliest works here are from vthe “C.B.X.” series (1986). An isolated figure struggles against the environment. In these black and white, small scale etchings the figure reaches toward the sky from the cover of trees, or beckons down toward the ground in gestures of openness and supplication. Merrill uses gestural lines to define his figures as well as their surroundings. The expressive quality of the line and its integration into the background become more pronounced in the larger prints. In series such as “Tai Chi,” 1989 and “Crux,” 1993, Merrill’s skills as a draftsman and colorist are apparent. “Crux III” is a large colorful work where a central male nude arches backwards in an unspecified space. The body is open and vulnerable, it presses up against red lines in the blue background, trapped and unaware.

Merrill addresses issues of race, gender, class, and current events in some works that are overtly political, though the artist betrays no partisan preference. In the print “August 5, 1945: Beginning of Empire, 2000,” and in the series “Kiss Your Flesh Goodbye, 2003,” atomic explosions and nuclear power plants populate the landscape. These prints call attention to the possibility of environmental disasters in hauntingly evocative ways. Rather than point the finger at others or at the world, Merrill typically uses his deeply personal experiences as a metaphor for basic human conditions.

Among the most powerful works in the exhibition are a series of four large prints entitled “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, War, Death, Petulance” (2004), and his 1998 installation “Power Impotence Resistance.” “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is Merrill’s reaction to 9/11, to, as he puts it, “the war mania, revenge mind set, rising Nationalism--the fear, the anger in the air.” It is a work that juxtaposes Judeo/Christian iconography with images from the corporate and political realm. In the “Death” segment, a hooded Klansman rides over skulls escaping explosions that are destroying civilization, whereas in the overtly partisan “War‚” Merrill depicts George W. Bush wielding a rocket launcher. While the “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is Merrill’smost political work, “Power Impotence Resistance” may be his most personal. This multi-media work from 1998 is highly confrontational. Larger than life images of the artist are presented in both sculptural and printed forms. In this work Merrill explores not only the relationship between men and women, but questions the stereotyping of the male’s role and historical dominance.

In all of Merrill’s work there is an urgency and a conviction. He is a master printer, a superb technician as well as a sophisticated and passionate artist who confronts the pleasures and pains of life in emotionally poignant works.