War, famine, pestilence, death
Age-old themes in politically charged Thousand Oaks exhibit
By Claudia Pardo McFadyen 12/10/2009
“War happens between kings,” Patrick Merrill explains when discussing the image of a crowned George W. Bush on horseback trampling over a vastness of human debris. The large woodblock print depicts the former president as “War”— one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The remaining “Famine,” “Pestilence” and “Death” are pictorially represented as a corporate “suit,” a scientist and a hooded Klansman, respectively, in Merrill’s “Meditations on the Apocalyptic” at Kwan Fong Gallery on the campus of Cal Lutheran University.
One of eight master printers in Southern California, Merrill, who began exhibiting his work in the 1970s, features work replete with symbolic icons for power, capitalism, religion, gender, patriotism and imperialism — imagery that resonates in a conditioned society accustomed to it. Naturally, his woodblock prints share political messages tied in with religious iconography that he believes has been internalized by our culture and accepted as “always having been there,” when in truth, it was generated during the counterreformation of the 16th and 17th centuries — and re-generated for political reasons today.
Despite the content of the work, Merrill’s “Meditations” are more than metaphorical — the work is a way for Merrill to understand himself as he faces the impending truth of his terminal illness. Having been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, he works toward creating a legacy. “It’s the overt apocalyptic language that feeds the notion of our capability for self-destruction,” says Merrill. This apocalyptic visual language is a reflection of deeply seated personal issues: a Vietnam veteran, a recovering addict and an ardent atheist, Merrill wishes to reinvest in his past through his work.
Merrill’s emotional contribution is evident in the strong perfomative element of his work; the artist’s own image appears in every one of the prints. “I am talking about my story,” he offers, “owning up to my complicity in this culture.”
Merrill’s large-scale woodblock prints are the result of a sometimes year-long mental process that solidifies into black and white renderings that have great depth despite their formal lack of perspective. The work is intentionally black and white to explore form and draw the viewer in a manner that, according to Merrill, isn’t necessarily optical, but tactile. He even allows the work to be touched. The scale draws the viewer in, and further scrutiny of the miniscule etchings invites a more physical interaction with the work. Suggestive of engravings, Merrill’s unusually monumental woodblock prints are drawn at scale and skillfully rendered, creating dense, animated surfaces with a captivating kinetic aspect.
In contrast to the somber aspect of his themes, Merrill’s work contains a strong element of beauty in craft and design that is perceptible in the effect it has on his audience. “My work isn’t about gaining knowledge of religion or history,” he says. “Art does this. It’s about gaining knowledge of yourself.” He wishes to inspire a non-hostile dialogue about important issues that don’t exist separate from any of his viewers. The poignant messages of his woodblock prints are meant to advocate a non-didactic dialogue about ideas of classical themes that precede interpretation.
“Meditations on the Apocalyptic” through Dec. 16. Kwan Fong Gallery, 60 W. Olsen Road, #3800, Thousand Oaks, 493-3316. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.