Paul Merrick

There are several possible ways to approach Paul Merrick’s recent work. One might, for example, adopt a relatively impersonal stance and consider the work from the perspective of art history. Such an approach would, in fact, involve two complementary perspectives. On the one hand the work could be seen in relation to other contemporary practices, whilst on the other hand it could be seen in terms of its self-conscious positioning in relation to practices developed in (American) art during the period c. 1955 – c.1975. If we were to follow the first of these approaches we might note that Merrick often makes his work from discarded objects and materials; objects and materials that exhibit clear signs of an earlier use, a previous ‘life’. The fact that some of these objects are also recognisable as chairs and tables enhances the work’s sense of the anecdotal. These works are therefore not simply exercises in formal arrangement; they carry a burden of association, associations evoking the intimate human world of the domestic, the familiar, the mundane and banal. From our historical perspective we might note that these general characteristics are by no means innovative in terms of art production, having entered the artistic lexicon around 1912 via the Cubists’ invention of collage. During the intervening period, however, the use of ‘found’ materials has provoked fluctuating degrees of interest among artists, and these historically varying degrees perhaps suggest something important about corresponding shifts in cultural contexts and their priorities. It’s impossible to be precise about such things, but it seems that the last few years have witnessed a noticeable revival of interest in the use of ‘found’ materials by artists. Pragmatists might attribute this renewed interest in scavenging to basic financial imperatives: at a time when straitened economic conditions prevail, the attraction of this material is that it is free. Those of a more socially aware frame of mind might also note that the use of ‘junk’ is a form of recycling, and thus represents an ethical and responsible reaction to topical ecological issues. For the more philosophically inclined, this desire to rescue meaning and significance from that which has been rejected as valueless might suggest a renewed sense of historical consciousness: a form of hauntology. *1

All of the above might be understood as an attempt to characterise some of those shared conditions under which Merrick’s work is produced, conditions that are, more precisely perhaps, pre-conditions for its general currency. But, as noted earlier, Merrick frequently employs another strategy within the works that adds another layer to their possible meaning and significance. A general overview of his recent work quickly reveals a host of references, both specific and generic, to art from earlier periods. The recognition of such references depends, of course, upon the viewer’s art historical knowledge, but waiting to be discovered are acknowledgements of the work of artists such as Dan Flavin, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Gerrit Rietveld, Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, John Chamberlain, Anthony Caro. In certain instances such references are explicit, as in Flag, which directly cites Jasper Johns’s seminal series of Flag paintings begun in the mid-1950s. Similarly, it would be virtually impossible for anyone familiar with the work of Dan Flavin to look at Merrick’s Big Plate and not see a connection. Slightly more indirect are the references to Gerrit Rietveld’s eponymous Rietveld Chair (c. 1923) in Big Nest. As far as the horizontally slung, yellow painted (powder-coated, to be precise) welded metal structure of Untitled is concerned, this may suggest a generic version of Anthony Caro’s 1960s output to only a limited few viewers, such as me. Yet regardless of how many of these references may be picked up by any individual viewer (and regardless of whether or not they are ‘correctly’ identified) they nevertheless pervade the work and contribute significantly to its condition and its meaning. For they function, so to speak, as a form of ready-made semantic material that operates in concert with the ready-made physical material. Another way of putting this would be to say that the work of these earlier artists appears in Merrick’s work as an accumulation of culturally validated signs, signs that further inflect our interpretation of those sheets of discarded metal and remnants of fixtures, fitting and furniture that provide the works’ physical presence. If, as I tried to suggest earlier, the nature of the materials evokes the realm of intimate human investment into those objects that ‘furnish’ our daily lives, then the cultural signs provided by means of reference to earlier art works appeal to a public realm, the realm of shared – and thus abstract and generalised – meanings. We might even go so far as to suggest that the former are meanings that we each produce as individuals during the course of our daily routines, whereas the latter are collective meanings provided for us by culture at large. Our response to both, however, is marked by a recognition that they belong as much to the past as to the present.

Such ambivalence, it seems, typifies Merrick’s works. They present the viewer with a challenge of sorts. In fact, we might want to see them as predicated upon a series of dialectical oppositions: a bundle of theses and antitheses that may or may not resolve into syntheses. For example: do we, as individual viewers, side more with the ‘public’ aspects of the pieces (their re-articulation of the ready-made cultural sign), or do we side with their ‘private’ aspects (their evocation, through the materials employed, of private histories)? Do we interpret their historical references as suggestive of a continuity between the present and the past, or, alternatively, as suggestive of a break with that past? Do these works celebrate the past, or mourn its loss? Reaching a decision on any of these questions may not be necessary: it is certainly not easy. In order to answer any of them we find that we are assailed by other sets of questions, other levels of ambivalence. Contemplating a work such as Untitled (Blue), for example, we may find ourselves wondering: is this object to be thought of as a painting, or as a sculpture? Equally we might ask: is the experience of this work primarily that of an object, or is it primarily that of an image? Untitled (Green), on the other hand, invites us to think about the contested line that separates a functional object from a work of art.

The majority of these foregoing questions, it should be noted, are neither entirely original nor novel: they are themselves historical. They are already embedded in a longstanding history of modern(ist) art, beginning with Duchamp’s invention of the readymade in 1913, and subsequently passing through such intensifying lenses as Donald Judd’s 1965 essay, Specific Objects. In drawing attention to this fact I am not trying to reduce the value of Merrick’s work, to accuse it of lacking originality. On the contrary, I want to suggest that it is in asking these questions again, that much of the value of this work resides. As the radical cultural shifts of the later 1970s and 1980s congealed into so-called ‘postmodernism’, the subtlety of much of its critical analysis became lost. For many of its foot soldiers ‘postmodernism’ seemed to simply mean ‘anti-modernism’. Modernism, as the catchphrase went, was dominant but dead. But such crude ‘endist’ thinking ran contrary to that of many of ‘postmodernism’s’ key thinkers, such as Lyotard and Derrida. The idea that modernism might be done and dusted was a convenient myth, but it had the character of – to use a psychoanalytical term – a disavowal. Modernism may have been suppressed, but it remained as unfinished business. Who can say what triggered its return to consciousness? Perhaps it was an effect of the eruption of historical consciousness that, according to some commentators, was caused by the collapse of communism, a process symbolically encapsulated in the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Shielded from western eyes by the wall, the ‘former east’ was now revealed to have had a different understanding of modernism, and a different set of lived relations to it. But, whatever the reasons and causes, modernism (in its cultural and its political guises) once again demanded the attention of artists.

As with any return to that which was – or was thought to have been – lost, there are differing responses and intentions on the part of the returnees. Thus Freud differentiates between mourning and melancholy, the former working painfully through the traumatic experience of loss in order to overcome it, the latter refusing to acknowledge loss, thereby condemning the sufferer to ceaseless and fruitless return to the site of trauma. In a slightly different vein, Svetlana Boym distinguishes between two tendencies within nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia, she argues, is ideological insofar as it attempts to establish an unbroken continuity with the past and thereby promotes a monolithic idea of history and tradition. Reflective nostalgia, by contrast, operates on the level of personal narrative and private longing. “The past for the restorative nostalgic”, she writes, “is a value for the present; the past is not a duration but a perfect snapshot. Moreover the past is not supposed to reveal any signs of decay; it has to be freshly painted in its “original image” and remain eternally young. Reflective nostalgia is more concerned with historical and individual time, with the irrevocability of the past and human finitude. Re-flection suggests new flexibility, not the reestablishment of stasis. The focus here is not on recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth but on the meditation on history and passage of time. To paraphrase Nabokov, these kind of nostalgics are often “amateurs of Time, epicures of duration, who resist the pressure of external efficiency and take sensual delight in the texture of time not measurable by clocks and calendars.”*2

In Paul Merrick’s work, I want to suggest, we may recognise the symptoms of reflective nostalgia. It would be a mistake to think that this is what Merrick necessarily intends the work to be ‘about’, but such a proposal enables us to imagine its wider cultural implications. (It should perhaps be emphasized here that the term ‘nostalgia’ is not being used here in a pejorative sense.) I take it as read that any viewer of Merrick’s work, anyone who had witnessed its recurrent deployment of scrap metal, superannuated furniture, and distressed surfaces, would not describe it in terms such as “eternally young”, or suppose that its intention was deny the passage of time by concealing “any signs of decay”. On the contrary, it would seem that the use of salvaged materials and objects, in association with recycled cultural signs, invites us to contemplate “the irrevocability of the past and human finitude.” It might even be ventured that a fascination with time lies at the very core of these works: “the texture of time not measurable by clocks and calendars”. Time is present here in the form of indexical traces: scratches, scrapes, chips, dents, echoes of past art.

But there is more, I think. Merrick’s art is, as I have tried to suggest, nothing if not ambivalent, and it is this element of ambivalence that binds us to it in a relationship in which everything is still to be decided. And when I raise the question of ambivalence in this work –especially insofar as it relates to questions of nostalgia, time and temporality – this is what I have in mind. Boym notes that restorative and reflective nostalgia are tendencies: they are not absolute conditions, and in Merrick’s work we can detect both tendencies simultaneously at play. In speaking of the physical properties of this work, emphasis has been placed up to this point upon its distressed and damaged features, but these features co-exist alongside their opposites. As often as not, objects and materials have been “freshly painted”, their ruined surfaces given a new identity (as in Twin Pillars, for example). Furthermore, in works such as Untitled (Top Blue) and Untitled (Blue), scarred and untreated sheets of painted metal retrieved from a scrap yard have been placed beneath protective screens of plexiglass in an apparently determined effort to insure them against further deterioration at the hands of time. Yet in every instance of such re-painting or touching-up there is no attempt on Merrick’s part to disguise this process: the ‘present’, so to speak, does not attempt to entirely conceal or disguise the ‘past’. Finally, perhaps, the ambivalent character of the relation of these works to time presents itself to us in a surprising and unlikely manner. Upholstery features in several of Merrick’s works, such as Untitled and Untitled (Green Abstract). Lack of upholstery is also a key feature of Big Nest. The function of upholstery might be thought of as providing ease and comfort for our bodies whilst they sit and whilst they sleep. Upholstery, in other words, provides support for inactivity: it eases the task of waiting.

Would it be stretching things too far to suggest that upholstery has been thematised in this body of work; that it has been presented and – equally significantly – occasionally withheld in such a way as to encourage us to pay attention? And would it be stretching it even further to imagine that upholstery might evoke a world of bodily comfort and ease in which “amateurs of Time, epicures of duration” might meditate “on history and the passage of time” and “take sensual delight in the texture of time not measurable by clocks and calendars”?

John Calcutt.

*1 Briefly, the idea of hauntology derives from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx (1993) in which he claims that communism (the spectre that haunts Europe, according to Marx in 1848) has become even more important since its collapse. The present is thus “haunted” by the ghosts of the past. For a discussion of hauntology in relation to recent art, see Jan Verwoert’ Apropos Appropriation: Why stealing images today seems different, in Beatrice Ruf and Clarrie wallis (eds), catalogue to Tate Triennale 2006, Tate Publishing, 2006.

*2 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, Basic Books, 2002, p. 49.