Everything Is Sacred: Reactions to the Work of Merrill Wagner

By Kaitlin McDonough, January 2017

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“Everything was sacred.”

These words, affirmed simply after a glowing pause, were Merrill Wagner’s response to my recent question, “What was it like to study with the painter Edwin Dickinson?” …To learn a way of thinking, seeing, making in which everything is regarded as profound.

Beyond speaking to Wagner’s formation, her recollection confirms a hunch and seems to offer a lens through which to understand Wagner’s process and the resonance of her work. Painting in a way that honors her found materials (slate, rocks, wooden fences, brick walls), Wagner establishes a humming vibration between these materials and the profound.

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She orders with paint, subjecting the organic to the geometry of lines or the code-switching of landscape. Moving fluidly between opposing organization systems, her work is evidence of many co-existing pathways towards meaning.

For me, this is where a certain femininity enters. A femininity in which her works function as both discrete objects and as members of an ecosystem of artworks whose meanings shift and grow in constellation with one another and in constellation with their surroundings (man-made or natural). A femininity that collaborates with time, with weather, with other bodies, with context, with gravity. A femininity that does not depend on rectangles. A femininity of connections that many artists, both male (think Sigmar Polke or Andy Warhol) and female, have intuited and with which they have infused their work.

It is not an aesthetic or a gender, but rather an orientation to the world–and to the stuff of the world–as mutable and as part of an ongoing dance of co-creation.

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Her works on paper generate a rhythmic delight while simultaneously and unabashedly revealing the strategy of their making. This equality of image and process is deeply satisfying, deeply affirmative of a wisdom as down-to-earth as it is great.

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Merrill’s work is marvelously sensual. It arouses satisfaction of the senses. It is impossible to relate to her paintings as singularly image or primarily as image. Looking at her work cannot be separated from measuring one’s body in relation, cannot be separated from a sense of the smooth heaviness of slate or the bumpy firmness of rock–how one may be within a circle of rocks, far from them, or beside them.

Deeply sensual and deeply intelligent, Merrill’s work proves the arbitrariness of names through the juxtaposition of colors. “Cadmium yellow” as language is rendered meaningless when embodied by many distinct squares of yellow packaged under the same name. The name takes a backseat to the overwhelming reality of the color itself. It is one thing to understand this concept with our rational minds and another to have it become a self-evident verity through the experience of the work itself.

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The tender resourcefulness and generous strength of Merrill’s work leaves me with an overwhelming feeling of hopefulness. Her work is a testament to the true liveliness that results from a practice grounded in respect and curiosity, interconnection and integrity, painterly joy and material presence.

It is has been an honor and a thrill to host these works at the New York Studio School.

Thank you, Merrill Wagner!

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Kaitlin McDonough is Program Coordinator and a member of the Drawing Faculty at the New York Studio School.

Merrill Wagner at the New York Studio School Gallery, November 21, 2016- January 8, 2017

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