Oedipus and Laius (diptych) 2001
Woodcut, etching, collograph
Laius and Oedipus was completed in early 2001. A diptych, Laius is on the left and Oedipus on the right. There are 3 plates for each panel with multi level printing- two woodblocks and a copper foil that was etched before it was embossed.
The wood blocks with the two primary figures were drawn directly on the wood and then cut. The background was cut and scraped to the third ply level. (The wood is Finnish Birch and is 5 ply thick.) I then applied squares of textured Japanese paper creating a collograph. It was my intention to create a grid with the squares of Japanese paper because the grid represents order and the power of hierarchy – the field in which the drama of Laius and Oedipus takes place.
The first block printed has a sumi-e style brushed symbol/image representing the Father and the Son that was cut deep into the wood. I had studied the nature of the transference of power in our Western Patriarchal culture by exploring the findings of Freud and others on the “Oedipus Complex.” I had documented my personal thoughts in my journal. I transferred enough pages to cover the entire block. I cut the text in reverse of course. I am interested in text as pattern, not text as signs to be read as a narrative, but as a decorative element referring just to the written word not to meaning. To that end, in addition to the wood block text, I etched the entire surface of my copper plates with faux writing.
After I etched the copper plate with the faux text I did a soft ground etching (in the top left corner of the Oedipus figure) of God the Father and the baby Jesus gesturing with his hand as if it was a gun. (I made up this iconic image of “father and son” because in my research I could find no such image in the history of Christian iconography. It is possible that there are in fact images somewhere, if so, I would appreciate any specific reference. There are plenty of images of Mary and the child, even Joseph and child. There are many images of the Father and the grown Son but nothing showing the Father and Infant.)
I printed the first block in 2 intaglio colours and rolled on the relief surface a split font colour and a third colour to appear underneath the figure. The second block received 2 intaglio colours one in the figure, the other in the collograph background and a relief for the figure. The copper was 2 intaglio colours only. I had to print each plate wet on dry in order to retain the intensity of the cadmiums.
Resist Series: Resist Privilege, Resist Patriarchy, Question Authority, Demand Your Voice, Oppose Violence as Solution, Resist the Imperialism of History
60”x24” Woodcut, etching, collograph, lithography
The overall title for this series of prints (8 in total) is called Resistance. I have focused on issues of power, impotence and resistance in my art practice since 1981. I believe that the primary dynamic in our society is one of domination and submission. These six works investigates one specific aspect of that dynamic – a man’s role in a culture defined by male power. I use the male form because I can only speak in my own voice.
Foucault said that, “Power is never simply repressive. It is exercised, not owned.” Power is a verb not a noun. It is visible first through action and then is articulated via resistance. Submission reveals the effect of power but not its form. Only resistance can define Power’s form, the greater the resistance, the sharper the image. Resistance is almost always cosmetic. True resistance challenges authority and will in turn be resisted by that authority, each pounding on the other until the weakest submits. Control is power and power is exultant, exhilarating, sought after and often violently maintained.
In these works patriarchal power is represented by the text of the “begat” list printed vertically on the left or right side in reflective gold ink. This is a listing of the patriarchal lineage taken from the Judeo/Christian bible, starting with Adam and listing only the males, subsuming woman to the status of brood mare. This “begat” list is my sign/symbol of Patriarchy.
Each of the nude male figures appear to be struggling within a “box.” They push out against the sides, for the moment in stasis. A grid is incised behind the figures, representing a cage. The grid is a sign/symbol for order, rigidity, system, control. I am using the box and grid motif as an abstract sign for hierarchical power. This containing power is what the figures are resisting. This is the very foundation of our culture that I feel we must resist, especially as men since we are not only within the “box” we also are the “box.” This work is not only a representation of the struggle against the restrictive order of our society but one of self-struggle as well.
In each print there are three photo lithographs: the first are doors; the second set are buildings that symbolizes institutions of domination: e.g. Chartres cathedral for the church/religion, the World Trade Center for economic, the prison system, the Capital building, even the Guggenheim representing history/culture; the third shows men and women resolving conflicts through violence. The last two are intended to point to those specific aspects of our culture that must be resisted. The door, because of implied potential, becomes a symbol of hope for me and resistance without hope is futile.
Patrick Merrill 1999
Seeking the Messiah (diptych)
Woodcut, etching, collograph, lithography
Before I speak specifically about “Seeking the Messiah” I’d like to take a moment and give you a brief exploration into my methodology. In my mind any attempt to describe my methodology or process must begin with my own personal search for peace, harmony and balance. These three terms for me are synonyms for synthesis. Synthesis, in a psychological sense, is a bringing together of disparate elements of Self. In the beginning of my recovery from addiction I was attracted to the concepts of Jungian psychology and some core aspects of Eastern philosophies. This is not the place to go into the convoluted path I took getting there, nor the more tortuous one of getting out. My interpretation of these psychologies and philosophies had me pursuing a synthesis based on the concept of “integration.” This became impossible for me because the term implied a fusing of the polar elements. To become “one” if you will. A metaphor I used to describe the integrated form of synthesis was that of mixing black and white paint. Separate entities merged giving up their individual integrity and producing a gray. The gray or synthesis was balanced but static. This did not conform to the worldview I was experiencing. I did not like the proposal that my polar components e.g. male/female violent/pacifist sober/addict should be merged or dissolved into a singular homogenized entity. Yet synthesis was still a primary desire. I investigated a second form of synthesis, one I’ve termed “conjunction.” The metaphor I used to describe the conjunctive form of synthesis is the weaving of black and white threads. The weaving produced a gray yes, but each thread retained its own integrity. Tension is very much evident in this model because of the possibility of unraveling and returning to the individual threads. Because of that potential, I saw this synthesis as a willful one that, somehow there was an act of will or agreement that was necessary in order to maintain the gray or the balance. This tension is missing from the static gray of blended, integrated black and white paint. While the above is a severely edited definition, its important to note here that in my investigation of the “conjunctive” I felt compelled to manifest these ideas in the way I thought about and made my art. I don’t believe in having one philosophy for life and another for art. It was in this pursuit of synthesis that I developed my particular methodology. Clear examples of this approach are represented here in the library by the “Resistance” series, “Laius and Oedipus” and “Seeking the Messiah.”
In “Seeking the Messiah” I was initially inspired by paintings by Odd Norstrum. In particular his walking figures. They seemed so laden with symbol and existential narratives. “Seeking” is a parody - a nod to the false idea of “a good self, and a bad self” as well as that primary false Western presumption of the Cartesian split of body and mind. Perhaps even the supposed opposition of “the conscious and the un-conscious.” The “mesh” between the two figures can be seen both as an adhesive holding us together and a ripping and tearing as we are pulled apart. What the figures (again these are images of myself as model for “everyman.”) seek is always before them, like the proverbial carrot pulling each individual forward. As stated in the text running along the bottom – there are no answers, only beliefs. In that text I listed a sampling of beliefs people see as answers: AEROBICS, DIET, GOD, BUDDHA, ART, YOGA, FANTASY, ALLAH, RUNNING, TAI CHI, CHRIST, BULIMA, BODYBUILDING, FASHION, ALCOHOL, SEX, DANCING, ADDICTION, MONEY, VIOLENCE, NATURE, CRYSTALS, ANOREXIA, DRUGS, GURU, HATE, PROSELYTIZING, FAME, SHOPPING, MASOCHISM, EXTREMESPORTS
Despite the often coached phrases of humility, of seeking the true inner self, what is actually sought is power. When I first created this work each hand held a black ball. It was intended that you “fill in the blank.” I decided to place in the ball the image of ultimate power, that is, the ability for ultimate destruction – Armageddon – nuclear holocaust. In this era of political maneuvering, of each faction seeking power over the other, more and more nations recognize that the only way to play in the big boys’ sandbox is to own the bomb. In such an environment the potential for worldwide destruction increases dramatically. Thus the parody, since unless seeking inner truth also involves eliminating nuclear madness then one is complicit with those seeking ultimate power.
Masters of War
2006 Woodcut 10 feet x 6 feet
The source of my images/ideas is the compelling need to know myself; my place in the world; the nature of my relationships with others. We often encounter the phrase “discovering one’s identity.” This doesn’t sit right with me. We don’t discover identity; we construct it. As an addict I would add “destruct” and then a re-constructing through self-determination. I mean think about it, we aren’t born with some essential “me” and that life is all about unfolding that “me.” No, right from the beginning we are being constructed by our parents, by the culture and by the behavior patterns imposed by tradition and institutions of power (church, government, economic, judicial etc.).
While I‘ve been an artist most of my life and even took formal training through the 70’s, it wasn’t until I started my recovery from drug addiction in 1981 that my art could take a determined direction. In the early years of recovery my art was wholly emotional and entirely gestural, the figure distorted and monstrous. The source and subject of my art was internal. I was seeking through my art and my studies in psychology a synthesis. As an addict my initial work, all self-portraits, was an effort in self-analysis in order to understand why I am an addict. Integrated synthesis was my goal but after a few years of studying and accepting this Jungian notion, its homogenizing blend of opposing elements struck me as wrong. My studies in philosophy were directing me to ideas about simultaneity. Suspending polar concepts, attempting to comprehend both/and rather than either/or. I still sought synthesis. In 1990 I developed the idea of a conjunctive synthesis that continues to govern my aesthetic and conceptual decisions. In my more recent work, the larger narratives I embrace require my image to function as a model for others. However since I intend my body, my image to be seen as a mark of complicity in the more open political works, the figures still retain some self-reference.
The title Meditations on the Apocalyptic is meant to both invoke the spiritual connotation of “meditation” as well as the 17th century term for philosophical investigations. Both connotations work in extreme contrast to the foreboding imminent disaster evoked by the “apocalyptic.” Many of my first works after my investigation of the “Self” dealt with war, famine, disease – man-made catastrophic deaths. The ultimate deathblow to the species is the nuclear bomb. If the full effect of that terror was ever to be released Death would weep because his job would be finished. Many of the earlier works in this exhibit investigate humanity’s inhumanity to itself. From subjugating imperialism to the Oedipal inheritance of “power” - the psychological foundation of hierarchical domination as I see it. My current investigation is a reevaluation of themes from The Book of Revelations first presented in the Medieval and Early Renaissance periods.
The first work in this project was the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, War, Death, Pestilence. From the beginning this project has been my Guernica, my reaction to the war mania, revenge mind set, rising Nationalism – the fear, the anger in the air. At the moment of “911” I got very angry – not at the then unknown assailants – but at my government. It wasn’t just that I felt they had brought this on us through decades of imperialism, economic domination and exploitation but that I knew they were going to use this attack to further their own ends. They would not take the moral high ground, using the international good will to organize the world in a joint campaign to fight the criminals and terrorists. No! They wanted Biblical revenge. In their self-righteous outrage they would drive us to war. Citing the same biblical language used by the religious Right, the Four Horsemen are iconic symbols from the old text of the Judeo/Christian Bible. The images of the Four Horsemen have been used for centuries – as prophesy, as warning. They represent the beginning of the “end game” - Armageddon. They speak of an exceedingly vengeful God.
The Masters of War continues my meditations on The Book of Revelations and its deliberate use in the political maelstrom of American imperialism. I believe there was an overt alignment between American Cold War cultural politics and Revelation’s demonology of the Antichrist and its various beasts. (e.g. Ronald Regan’s notorious identification of the USSR in 1983 as the “evil empire” and the current demonizing by Bush of North Korea, Iran and Iraq as the “axis of evil.’) This choice of language was developed by Bush’s speechwriters in order to match the theological language used by Bush since the September 11, 2001 attacks. The warriors in Masters of War are modeled after medieval depictions of Archangels. The innocents are naked, vulnerable and are modeled after the classic images of the fallen angels. The warriors wear U.S. camouflage uniforms; demon masks conceal their faces. They wield spears driving the vulnerable victims of war down to Hell in a reversal of the traditional presentation of “good vs. evil” drama of “Michael and Lucifer.” The nuclear explosion filling the background represents the ultimate apocalyptic image and my greatest fear. The anxiety of that potential is the constant background thrum of my life.
As cultural critics artists need to create a vocabulary of dissent, of resistance to dominance. My choice of Revelations as a metaphoric structure for my project was intended to engage both the Right and the Left in a dialogue. We have so little discussion about difference and precious little compromise on those differences. The visual structuring of the iconic images described in The Book of Revelations, while beginning in the Middle Ages, were formalized by the 16th century. Western culture has internalized them and can readily identify them. They are ideal for appropriating and re-contextualizing.
One could also use Revelations as a metaphor to meditate on one’s own life. As Frances Carey in his book The Apocalypse postulates, the life history of an individual whose personal fall (an addict’s crash), while not redeemed according to the promises of Revelations, can never the less be redeemed. Apocalypse thus becomes a psychomachia: each person struggling with his/her own Beast and Whore (of Babylon) to find redemption within. What needs to be determined is not only the nature of each personal beast but also what defines “redemption?”
4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse
4 panels @ 6 feet x 12 feet
4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, War, Death, Pestilence
From the beginning this project was my Guernica, my reaction to the war mania, revenge mind set, rising Nationalism – the fear, the anger in the air. At the moment of “911” I got very angry – not at the then unknown assailants – but at my government. It wasn’t just that I felt they had brought this on us through decades of imperialism, economic domination and exploitation but that I knew they were going to use this attack to further their own ends. They would not take the moral high ground, using the international good will to organize the world in a joint campaign to fight the criminals and terrorists. No! They wanted Biblical revenge. In their self-righteous outrage they would drive us to war.
This four-paneled print is my response, citing the same biblical language. The Four Horsemen are iconic symbols from the old text of the Judeo/Christian bible. The images of the Four Horsemen have been used for centuries – as prophesy, as warning. They represent the beginning of the “end game.” They speak of an exceedingly vengeful god.
In the past Famine was represented as an emaciated man – skin and bones. War was the purview of Kings thus our rider always wore a crown and wielded wicked weapons. Death was the robed and cowled skeleton, his scythe harvesting souls from the seething masses of humanity. Pestilence was covered in sores, wounds weeping with rot.
These medieval representations seem to reflect the effect not the cause, especially Famine and Pestilence, but even Death should be seen as a result not a cause. War is perhaps the one causal element but within the Book of the Apocalypse even War is seen as a result of Humanity’s evilness. I chose to represent the causes, the perpetrators. Famine is the Suit, the anonymous corporate Suit. With his eyes concealed by dark glasses we have no access. He wields a sledgehammer to beat the people to the ground, not to kill but to subjugate. War still wears his crown and here he wears the face of George W. Bush. He wields a rocket launcher. No longer the personal up close weapon of the blade but the impersonal mass destruction of an explosion. Death as I’ve said is a result not a cause but I still wanted that old familiar profile included in the Four. I wanted Religion to be included in the ride of these mad Four. Not your normal, tolerant, democratic believers in god but the hateful self-righteous Fundamentalists. Thus the usually cowled death is wearing the hood and robe of the Klu Klux Klan. Let us not think that terrorism is only “out there.” Pestilence while a product of Nature in the past is far more the result of the “mad scientist.” The biological and chemical weapons, produced world wide and stored in vast quantities, give proof to that.
The background narrative reveals my greatest fear – the nuclear bomb. Exploding behind the cities, behind civilization, backlighting the buildings, the cities are turned into film negatives. Exploding from that atomic waste are the Four Horsemen - trammeling, stomping, rampaging over a supplicating humanity. The people raise their arms, cry out in pain beseeching the instruments of their god for mercy, but to no avail. In the front as if humanity has been reduced to a pulp the swirling, frothing wave cascades human skulls – complete and utter destruction.
I too, like my Medieval forbearers, present these images as warning.
Whore of Babylon
2007 Woodcut 8 feet x 9 feet
[Rather than make a statement I have chosen to extract a few notes from my journal where I speculated, analyzed, and made u-turns during the year I focused on this project. The content is as much a process as the making of the woodcut.]
The Whore of Babylon does not represent a seamless “beginning, middle, end” narrative. It is a collection of iconic fragments utilizing both sign and symbol. Like her predecessors the Whore mines and reinterprets the Medieval iconography found in the woodcuts and etchings of the era and juxtaposes them with contemporary iconic imagery.
Naked men kneel (or perhaps more accurately stated, are “grounded”) on the familiar Wall Street numbers of the stock exchange – a perfect symbol (or only a sign?) of Capitalism. The stock numbers are laid out in classic one point perspective. Its apex is the sex of the Whore, but also the cup in her hand. The Christian tradition says this is the cup of corruption. But what is this corruption? Hypocritically it is usually what ever is currently being denounced by the self-righteous powers that be. (I’ve always thought that self-righteousness should be an ingredient in the cup.) But in this narrative I am focusing on only one – nuclear power. It is my belief that the bomb is the definitive form of the Apocalyptic. So these men are worshiping the cup? Not the Whore? They probably are lusting after the Whore. They are certainly lusting for the power represented by the nuclear.
It was my intention that viewers would interpret the men kneeling on the “ground of Capitalism” as corporate types but their nakedness is too blunt. The naked bodies didn’t say directly “corporate” or even power. Their nakedness forced only a sexual reading. I was inadvertently left with sexualized men worshiping this centered, powerful, emotionless woman. They are just men bowing and supplicating before a semi-naked Amazon (her scale is 50% greater than the men). The whore is looking straight out at the viewer. This was a formal maneuver to force an engagement with the viewer. The viewer is not allowed to gaze over the image, to look on the Whore as an object. The viewer is being challenged. This woman is looking directly out at the viewer and saying, “I see you looking. We are both subjects here.” Again as a formal structure, looking up at the Whore places the viewer in the same position as the circle of men, suggesting an affinity with those worshiping men. I intended to introduce the idea of complicity. Certainly the use of my own image is a mark of my own complicity. I’m not saying I crave the same power as our corporate brothers but never the less I do crave an alternate power – fame and immortality (via leaving my ‘mark’ on history through my art). Such hubris is no less egotistical although much less destructive in the greater scheme of things.
The circle of men raises their hands in gestures of worship but also gestures of supplication, that is, they desire. What do they desire? That which is in the cup only? No, their desire is for her and what ever is in the cup. Sexual desire is often defined as lust. Desire, semantically, is somehow more cerebral, of the mind; lust is earthy, of the body and because of Christian indoctrination, this form is sinful. This sexual reading points to the stronger hunger of lust. It is just more accurate to say corporate overlords lust for power.
What is not clear in my narrative is the type of men worshiping in the circle around the Whore. Other than the stock exchange index nothing names them Corporate. So in the next State proof I will introduce into the finished composition the almost universal icon of the Corporate – the suit. I’ve made some photos of a crumpled suit – tie, shirt, pants, shoes - that I shaped into the form of a man. I will print this image as a lithograph superimposed over the stock market index – just one for each side of the woodcut. I’m hoping people will see it like a snake shedding its skin – and knowing that, like a snake the shed is only a gesture since the new skin remains and is the same, it is only fresh and new a la Madison Ave marketing when in order to make the old new without changing they simply say, “New! New and Improved!” (Remember the Who song where they sang, “ the old boss is the new boss, is the same boss.”)
The traditional Whore of Babylon is always riding a seven-headed beast, depicted as fantastical creatures, often demons. I wanted my beasts to be more. Because of their graphic placement in the composition they too are the recipients of worship. The seven are writhing out from under her wildly undulating dress – a barely contained chaos in complete contrast to the Whore’s severe vertical posture. (I once posited and still believe that order is a random aspect of chaos.) What the seven beasts represent is “Imperialism.” Each head is developed as a heraldic representation of current and previous imperialistic powers e.g. lion for England, dragon for Japan/China. I intended Imperialism to be what is being worshiped. I see Imperialism intimately linked to Capitalism and nuclear destruction.
The Whore is the ultimate temptress – offering in the cup of corruption absolute power and absolute destruction. Her beasts are the sign/symbols of imperial power, the vehicles for absolute power/destruction. And yes, that is Washington D.C as Babylon burning. While “Babylon Burning” has been a constant theme of Reggae music it’s a pop phrase from the 60’s that keeps pricking my brain. “What goes around comes around.”
Patrick Merrill 2008
7th Seal or Whoopee! We’re all gonna die
Woodcut, drypoint, lithography
(diamond shaped) 12 feet x 12 feet
The “7th Seal” continues my investigation into the “apocalyptic.” This exhibit explores the conflation of three distinct ideas: the Dance of Death – one of the primary subjects of medieval morality plays; the Court Jester’s power to speak in a critical, open manner when the King, for political reasons, must remain silent; and the 8th chapter, 1st line in “The Book of Revelations” that to my mind describes the first moments of a nuclear explosion.
The seventh seal, as referenced in the Bible, is a warning and a prediction. I chose the theme because the passage in the bible spoke to me about a nuclear holocaust. I see a bright light and dead silence followed by chaos – all hell breaking loose - the perfect image of a nuclear explosion. I began my exploration of the theme with the very small works - mocking the born again fundamentalists in their enthusiastic embrace of the “end of days” by shouting “Whoopee! We’re all going to die” - a line I lifted from Country Joe & the Fish in his 1967 anti Viet Nam war song “I feel like I’m fixin’ to die rag.” I used the image of a prancing jester as my mocker because in the medieval period the court jester was the only one who was allowed to speak truth to power. I made the jester in my own image. As in most of my work I include my self-image to indicate the complex, complicit nature of my own role and the foolishness of thinking I could be outside of this or any issue.
As the exploration progressed the jester became a more complex, conflated image changing roles in different prints becoming, in whole or part, an entertainer, a Cassandra, a wise philosopher or a trickster. In one set of prints he is making a literal equation between the bomb and death with the pointing left hand and the right holding a skull. Between the jester and the bomb is a “dance of death.” The “dance” is a late-medieval allegory on the universality of death: no matter one's station in life, the dance of death unites all – whether we be pawns or kings. I have appropriated Ingmar Bergman’s final scene from his film “The Seventh Seal” to illustrate the idea. In another trio of prints the jester is cupping his hand to his ear listening to the angel’s trumpet? or signing the silence? The title also comes from a song from the 60’s, a song about conflict and chaos – Buffalo Springfield’s “For what its worth.” “…It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound. Everybody look what's going down. Paranoia strikes deep. Into your life it will creep. It starts when you're always afraid…” This jester is also holding a skull in his right hand a la Hamlet. The question of “to be or not to be” is not just a personal existential question but one that, given the power of the nuclear bomb, a question for all of civilization to ponder – life or not life.
As I continued to meditate on the theme the prints got larger allowing for a fuller presentation of my iconic ideas. The lurid landscape is intensified, now littered with skulls. In the foreground are the symbols for the “game of kings” - the pawn and king, which in turn refers back to the “dance of death.” In all of the works the image of the angel sets the biblical tone. It is the angel blowing the trumpet that opens the Seals in the Book of Revelations. But only the fool hears. Angels are usually seen as a beneficent agents of God but in the large etching, “7th Seal,” I mock that presumption by showing the flight of angels rising from the horizon as they mimic the silhouettes of a WW II saturation bombing formation. (Remember Dresden?)
At one level all the etchings were studies for the final woodcut. In this work the very large scale is a conceptual necessity in order to place the viewer physically in the space of the image. I returned to my original mocking, leaping jester. He is no longer listening to the angel’s trumpet. The landscape is transformed into a field of chaos. In the black and white interior rocks and skulls are boiling away into flames; the flames dissolving into a chaotic cosmos. Across that cosmic field speed red, mad missiles of death representing that ludicrous game of kings – Mutually Assured Destruction. The entire tableau is encased in swirling red flames and each corner anchored with an image of a nuclear explosion. The whole is framed in the black of death.
As an a-theist I know the apocalypse will not be an act of a God but an act of men. I too make my images as warning and use them in the same way as my medieval forebears did when they used the iconic images they developed for the “Book of Revelations” as vehicles for political propaganda. There is no sanity in one “kingly” demigod ranting at each other that his opposite is the evil one. Sanity can only be found in a true democracy, a democracy where conflicts are resolved by talking to one another. Art in a democracy should be a site for dialogue.