The shape of things

Anna Johnson 2015 

Less than a century ago major paintings were autographed in one corner and boxed within a gilded frame. Through time the painting would exchange hands and change frames, out of the artists’ reach and lost to commerce. Caged by objecthood.

Lara Merrett began to interrogate the process of painting by leaving the easel and working on the floor. Her work has been physical, gravitational, fluid and haptic. The vast scale of her painting embraced an engulfing aura, perpetually pushing at the perimeters, eliminating the boundary between the package and the gift.

Beneath her work on the studio floor were drop cloths, porous skins for the run off of ink, acrylic and water. As recently as last year her paintings began to slip from their moorings. Rough sliced with raw edges, sliding from the gallery wall onto the floor like the hem of a vast cape or a loosened flag. Seeking to “shatter her own patterns” Merrett was approaching the anti-monolith. In her newest work, painting becomes performative, a-material, haptic, sculptural yet re-animated. The installation is singular and perpetually changing. What was once considered residue becomes the central subject, the stain becomes the mark. And perhaps this is painting at it’s most physical. Solid but free of the weight of materialism. The frame and the frame work removed.

The Thought Fox

Amita Kirpalani 2014 

When Lara Merrett describes “catching a painting”, she is in part describing the tarpaulin which flanks the four metre paintings of the main Karen Woodbury Gallery space - this material which catches the run-offs, drips and over-painting is offered as a kind of witness to work in the studio. By ‘catching a painting’ Merrett is also describing the double-acts of painting the painting, and watching the painting. It is a process of continual risk where the paint gets away from you, like words, tunes, and paper in a breeze.

After my conversation with Lara I’m thinking about the ways that ideas, words and painterly forms find shapely reconciliation in the studio, since putting pressure on one element has the force to misshape or throw another out of balance. I’m thinking of Ted Hughes’ poem The Thought Fox (1957). In it Hughes describes a non-shape mysteriously stirring in a still night. Slowly cajoled into sight by light and language, the poet discerns “A fox’s nose” as it “touches twig, leaf”, full of suggestion as “Two eyes serve a movement”. The fox represents nervously twitching inspiration and timid intuition. Inspiration and intuition, played by the fox “sets neat prints into the snow”, and in this series of half-sights foreseeing “a body that is bold to come”. Eventually as the fox moves closer, and closer towards the poet its eyes appear as one eye, and the fox “enters the dark hole of head”. The fox is at this point fully apprehendable and ‘caught’ in the mind-lair. The poem in part describes harnessing inspiration and “brilliantly, concentratedly” looking through one’s own eyes: the difficult act of trying to analyse one’s own way of looking.

Critic Jorg Heiser asks an important question of contemporary painting, speculating through the voice of the artist: “How can I watch my own eye in the process of seeing, and how can I do justice to the other forms of perception by painterly means?” Again, a question of how to watch the fox entering the lair. Or if you prefer, a process of analysing inspiration, one purpose of which is, of course to encourage more foxes. It’s partly about a crisis of relevance; a crisis of saying too much or too little and being simultaneously inside and outside of the paining.

Lara Merrett’s tarpaulin works, humbly, in part pay tribute to being both inside and outside the painting, by asking us to consider the studio. Exhibiting this evidence or element of the studio describes the conditions in which the painting developed, where edits were made, and the dominant shapes and angles emerged. The tarpaulin speaks to the space within which a painting followed a line of thought, a flight of fancy, or when a determined grip seized a particular line. It’s a bit like, well, these walls can’t talk but they can make sign language at you.

The title of the exhibition, Doublethink, is a reference from the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and points to this double bind. Within the novel Doublethink is a form of trained, willful blindness, a method to control thought directly via language. Doublethink is both knowing and not knowing, says Orwell in the novel, “Doublethink is basically the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”. And further: “even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.” To be a painter today is to concurrently doublethink painting’s history, to doublethink one’s social, political and environmental circumstances and to doublethink the cultural context within which the painting lives. In this way, Lara shimmies between breaking and feeling painting’s structure.

The slightest sensations can be felt through and intuition can be announced in painting. Yet painting can never be a congruence between rational function and intuitive reflex. Lara leads and is mis-led in the painting, and in this jostling the painting finds its own logic, forcefulness and tension.
Painting can both prompt and enact the thought fox. Here, the fox is bravely twitching.

Romanticism and a Gothic sensibility

Louise Martin-Chew 2010

"Look at any inspired painting," Philip Guston once told a reporter for Time magazine. "It's like a gong sounding; it puts you in a state of reverberation." There is ambiguity and shades of a contemporary Gothic sensibility evident in Lara Merrett's abstract canvases. These works draw on traditions of romanticism, but express a highly personal iconography reflective of Merrett's life phase and its intensity.

In recent years, Merrett's life has changed with the arrival of her two children (now three years and eighteen months old) and this experience has been channelled into the work. In this writer's conversation with her, she suggested: "As I change - physically, mentally and emotionally - the work becomes a living breathing thing. My relationship with it comes from an emotive place: I have to feed myself with it, in the same way that music uplifts you or takes you away from the everyday." These paintings also embrace happenstance, a lack of control that is an integral part of family life, the necessary layering of newness over experience. It is an imaginative journey which unfolds in a highly organic way.

Born in 1971, Merrett currently lives in Melbourne and paints in a studio separate from but adjacent to her house, behind a garden. She studied painting, starting a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Sydney's College of Fine Arts in 1990, but left to study in Spain in 1991. At this time she embraced abstraction - influenced by the work of Spanish artist Joan Miró and the first-hand experience of texture in painting that is an integral part of the European experience. She later lived and worked in New York (1994), working as a gallery assistant in Soho. Since then she has completed both the BFA and a Masters of Fine Art degree at COFA (University of New South Wales, 1997), and undertaken a residency in India in 2001.

Her working method is to develop concurrent paintings in ink over a period that may vary from one day to four months. On studio days she spends time in the morning reading, listening to the radio, and writing down ideas and thoughts, also contemplating the work so far. "One work will be flat on the ground and I'll start to mix colours to different strengths. There is not a lot of control at this stage but I have to find this strange balance between pushing the work in a direction and letting go. If I try to rush things or have too clear an idea on outcome the work never succeeds. I want the work to take me to places I have never been, a kind of mental landscape. It's this desire for a new place that can drive the work."

At the same time, another painting leans against the studio wall and Merrett layers inks directly onto its canvas, developing texture and mood. Moving around the canvas she works into the paint, looking for points of balance, layering in an almost topographic fashion. She describes it as a meditative, repetitious process which is also random. "I find each work has its own time frame and rhythm. I don't put works aside or stop and start them. I really hope to be connected to the work from the very beginning."

Merrett often returns to the studio to find work quite different to the way she left it, as though it has a life of its own. Mostly this relates simply to the drying character of the inks, but when a wind storm swept through her studio last year, and hundreds of seeds settled on a painting, she embraced with pleasure the resulting graininess.

Lisa Byrne, writing in a catalogue for the Karen Woodbury Gallery in 2007, compared Merrett's work to the romantic painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suggested: "Conceptually imagining these works is not unlike the manner in which many of the Romantic painters and engravers constructed their works. Leaving aside the obvious points of difference (representational and non-representational aesthetics), both imagine geographies of space, atmosphere and physicality ... For Merrett, it's the inquiry into the picture plane and surface, balance of ink and acrylic, of depth and opacity, chaos with order and the reference to otherness through that which goes beyond the frame." It is possible, too, to draw analogies between Merrett's work and that of contemporary abstract painters like Dale Frank, even Stephen Bush whose figuration emerges out of an abstract landscape, with a touch of the darkness of Bill Henson's urban photographs.

But what draws most attention in Merrett's work is its contemporary Gothic sensibility, a current vein of darkness visible in our art, literature and music. The ambiguity evident in novels like John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One in (which Merrett has also used as a title) indicates a changing fable for this century. No longer are we still reliving and revisiting the Christian fable (with the conclusion of the Harry Potter series aping that ancient text) but, perhaps due to a more pervasive pessimism about global financial and environmental issues, emerging is the possibility of surrender to darker forces outside our control.

Merrett's work takes us on a journey in which we may glory in the ambiguities, explore her personal narrative that may become the viewer's own, but also progress an abstract aesthetic into new territories. Her titles in recent years - for example, Hanging in there, Too soon to tell and Going deep - allude to the stoic physical and psychological states of being in this age of anxiety. Hum, from 2005, at some level strikes up a conversation with Guston's 'reverberation'. Yet also evident is an ongoing interest in the artist's relationships with the world - personal, conceptual, technical and global. Lara Merrett is showing at Karen Woodbury Gallery in June 2010.

“They’re the titans of tenderness... the sultans of sensitivity... the monsters of mellow…” Text

Lisa Byrne Melbourne 2007

One of the fundamentally enticing qualities of abstraction is its claim to otherness and its hold on nothing. Lara Merrett’s current body of work on show in Soft Rock affirms this idea. On the one hand this work is neatly positioned within the genre of abstraction,

on the other it’s a distinctly new, free association of equal parts humour and a beguiling type of irrational anamorphism.

The key to understanding these descriptive qualities and many of Merrett’s cryptic titles, is the artist’s Romanticised approach to abstraction. Cleverly, Merrett uses her knowledge of abstraction, sets it aside, then goes about the dissolution of the hard edges and sharp geometrical forms. The results are wholeheartedly emotive works. The artist, in a very considered manner, maintains the hard-hitting poignancy of her abstractionist forebears, albeit with a sobering dash of wit and irony.

At the substrata level of appreciation, Merrett’s Romanticised skills come into action. Stimulating our collective imaginations in playful and adventurous works Merrett uses organic forms rendered in ink and acrylic at a one to one scale ratio. At times deeply layered, at others economically pared back, each work functions like a map of the unfamiliar.

Unfamiliar territories, or atmospheres where competing viscera juices combine over the surface of the canvas, all come into visual play. Merrett skews and scrambles the visual shapes into forms that seem as if they could potentially be reinstated into representational type motifs if the right perspective were to be located. In complicating the non-representational status of the abstractionist genre, and tripping it up with a style of irrational anamorphism1, the artist makes claim to a latent interplay of the conscious and unconscious.

As maps these paintings reference their mostly topographic construction. Rather than just a two dimensional surface, Merrett works around the canvas like a sculptor, shaping, balancing and layering each work until its completion. It’s an intuitive methodology that again harks back to the Romantic sensibility. Conceptually imagining these works is not unlike the manner in which many of the Romantic painters and engravers constructed their works. Leaving aside the obvious point of difference2, both imagine geographies of space, atmosphere and physicality. For the Romantics it was the depths of the uncharted seas, and the reconciliation of the creationist and the evolutionist histories among many other inquiries into the subject of nature. For Merrett it’s the inquiry into the picture plane and surface, balance of ink and acrylic, of depth and opacity, chaos with order and the reference to the otherness through that which goes beyond the frame.

Evoking a Romantic tainted irony, Merrett’s exhibition title Soft Rock is an example of how the artist uses witty irony in her aesthetic to disavow finite anchoring of her practice. The musical genre “soft rock” has been referred to as “the titans of tenderness... the sultans of sensitivity... the monsters of mellow…”3, sung by the likes of Lionel Richie, Roxette, Phil Collins and others. Indeed the contemporaneity of this practice would lead you in this metaphoric direction, yet the forms themselves also appear reminiscent of geography, especially cavernous though non-sensical spaces of a vibrant underworld. Perhaps these are paintings and drawings of a literary world, think Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or Alain Corbin’s The Lure of the Sea, in which he traces the shift in visualisation and the metaphoric embracing of the sea and coast during the Enlightenment Period.4 Needless to say there is the cheeky aside to abstract expression.

In moving away from real world natural associations, equally we might see windows on the unknown world of science fiction. Not the creepy crawlies, or the personified animal subjects. Rather, dare I say it the visual nature of science fiction. Arbitrary swirling and floating forms across the canvas like amoebic mass oscillating in undefined atmospheric space.

Working intuitively on each painting, Merrett steps into unchartered territory at the beginning of each new work. Working from the first mark on the canvas through until the final detail is a brave passage that when successful, yields limitless possibilities in the eyes of the beholder. Understanding the manner in which the Romantic sensibility operates provides a crucial inroad to this artist’s journey through an ostensibly abstract genre.

Whether or not these paintings summon the full or part thereof imaginative experience described, what they undoubtedly achieve is an escape from the everyday, representational world. In shifting from the world of reality to the world of the imagination we move from things seen to things dreamed.

Lisa Byrne is an independent writer, curator and project manager currently based in Melbourne who specialises in contemporary art practice.

1 “The image must be viewed from a position that is very far from the usual in-front and straight-ahead position from which we normally expect images to be looked at” adapted from

2 Representational and non-representational aesthetics

3 Wish it was mine, borrowed from

4 Corbin Alain The Lure of the Sea: the discovery of the seaside (1750-1840) Penguin 1995 Translated Jocelyn Phelps. Corbin’s book is an account of the angst with which, until the eighteenth century, the sea and coast was viewed. At this point however Corbin traces the manner in which the imagination embraces the unfamiliar or unknown sea and coastline in a terrific account drawn from artistic, scientific and philosophical evidence.