On the Art in the Spiritual

Humankind has acknowledged the metaphysical for about as long as consciousness has existed, and our species has exercised its unique ability (and need) to express itself through the making of things – from inscriptions to monuments – for as long as consciousness has driven the hand. Merrill Steiger’s compound pictures celebrate our spirituality, and especially our urge to give that spirituality concrete form. Her paintings do not themselves seek to echo that process of form--giving so much as they pay homage to that process. They are meta--pictures, pictures of pictures of the “other” world.

Steiger scours this world for manifestations of the other- worldly – specifically, as indicated, manifestations that our culture regards as “artful.” The swirling cosmologies painted by Australian aboriginals collide in her collaged concoctions with Mesoamerican apparitions, the artifacture of European museums, images of the Buddha, and even the forest of geologic fingers that constitute the consecrated ground of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. Steiger’s densely ordered conflations propose a seamless relationship between these formally, geographically, and religiously diverse images. She may enhance their curiousness when presented in such a fashion, but does not proffer them as mere curios; rather, they become a kind of network of the sacred, a tissue of the spirit woven from the diverse strands of human imagination and perception.

As such, Steiger’s canvases (and the collages upon which they are based) do not substitute iconically for the things we worship or the pictures we have forever projected of the next realm. But nor are they mere souvenirs of human theological fantasy (much less of Steiger’s travels). They present themselves as tapestries of awareness, sampling things and images imbued with the holy, artifacture that resonates with our splendid guesses at the beyond. They do not seek to arrogate the power or insight of their elements, but only to attest to such insightful power, for itself and for what it says about us. As such, Steiger’s art respectfully stands apart from what it depicts. In order to pay adequate homage to their sources – and the meanings of those sources – her pictures must maintain their autonomy, and must work, in the context of latter--day aesthetics, as paintings. In fact, they must cohere first and foremost as self--sufficient art objects. Steiger makes sure they do.

Steiger’s approach, as rich in informational citation as it is in visual complexity, has long presented itself as a model of heterogeneous picture--assembling. The collage provides the painter her visual data, her composition, and her aesthetic; but it does not provide her the ambition driving her visual or subjective scope. Those come from much more expansive interpretations of picture--making. In its referential ambition Steiger’s art proposes less a collage aesthetic than a mural aesthetic, a desire to mirror the vastness of human experience. The new paintings in this Dreamland series (the name clearly referencing the nature of the Australian aboriginal universe) show Merrill Steiger reaching entirely beyond her own imagination and delving into the collective imagination, tapping the very vein of spiritual and even eschatological preoccupation that provides our species’ artistic impulse its basic armature.

Peter Frank, 2013

Peter Frank is associate editor for Fabrik Magazine and former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum, He has served as editor of THEmagazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly and as critic for Angeleno magazine and the L.A. Weekly. Frank was born in 1950 in New York, where he wrote art criticism for The Village Voice and The SoHo Weekly News, and moved to Los Angeles in 1988. He contributes articles to numerous publications and has written many catalogues for one‑person and group exhibitions. Frank has also organized numerous theme and survey shows.