The Universe in a Drop of Paint

Merrill Steiger’s paintings brim with references, but refer only to themselves – and to the visual and intellectual curiosity of their maker. Organic and cartographic, spatial and notational, floral and mechanical, manual and digital, prehistoric and modern, Steiger’s compositions relate to one another stylistically only because she wills them thus, her visual sensibility picking up on the visual similarities – or continuities – between such disparate sources. Steiger’s work conveys sensation and observation – or, more to the point, the sensation of observation: driven by a curious mind and a hungry eye, she absorbs much and synthesizes all she takes in with a dogged lyricism. 

Steiger’s style is easier to like than it is to take. Its formal vocabulary is drawn with meticulous exactitude and painted with an almost painfully vivid palette. The exuberance here is infectious and unstinting, almost beyond our being able to share in it. What finally maintains the appeal of this optically hyperactive work even past the point where our eyes can comfortably look at it is its erudition. In its manifold dependence on imagery derived from knowledge – a visual epistemology, in effect – Steiger’s art keeps the pilot light of our curiosity lit by her own. We connect to it as we grasp the formal metaphors, whether they be to microscopic or macrocosmic, mineral or manmade phenomena. In this regard, her painting, hermetic in its exacting, eccentric mannerisms, maintains a broad universal appeal. The bright colors have an almost atavistic allure. The bumptious forms, redolent of so many disciplines, maintain an overlapping circus of motion and interpenetration. The compositions lie on the surface like comic strips or graffiti, built up in painstaking layers – van Gogh-like accretions, really (if less ferociously limned) – but depending on a purely retinal, as opposed to theoretical, sense of depth. Steiger emphasizes the eccentricity of her imagery with emphatic contrasts between dark and light areas of color, and with pointillistic stippling filling certain of those areas. 

These elaborately decorative devices ramp up the visual energy of Steiger’s already vibrant pictures, but they also help her unify her conformations and make them that much more distinctly her own. They are not imposed, but rather feel natural to each painting. Appearing in map-like composition and cell-like conformation alike, these and other playful but careful strategies evince the earmarks of Steiger’s signature approach. What she paints is the universe; how she paints it is her. 

We see Steiger exercise the same ability to claim and unify disparate visual and conceptual sources in her works on paper. She has long used collage to prepare for her painting, but only recently has she begun to think of these cut-and-assembled works as self-sufficient, and begun exploiting their particular qualities – their glossy texture, their radical jumps in depth and scale and color – for themselves. One characteristic Steiger’s collages share with her paintings without translation across divergent media is the sense of – of, well, collage itself, of an almost mosaic interlocking of elements. Certainly, when Steiger inserts a large tympanum-like element – a flower, a globe, a mandala-like burst – into the middle, or as the crown, of a painting, the jump in visual and referential coherence is collage-like. Occurring especially in the largest works, themselves frequently multi-panel compositions (even beyond the addition of the round panel), the round insertions at once anchor and agitate the overall work, as if the roseate window over the entrance to a church had suddenly leaped into the church’s altarpiece. It makes contextual sense in a weird way, as if dreamt. 

This juxtapository device, this round peg stuck into rectangular pictures, is only the most audacious of Merrill Steiger’s incongruities. In her collages and her paintings alike her visual approach is very deliberate but very expansive, uniting incongruities and making them cohere less by taming them than by letting them run rampant side by side in deliberately matched and balanced regions. If we can think of Steiger as managing a menagerie of forms, we see that she manages them not as a zoo but as a circus, a realm of simultaneity and of refined but still showy and provocative performance. Better, though, to regard Steiger’s art as occupying – no, defining – a cosmos. The myriad elaborate and cataclysmic events that occur before our eyes may overwhelm our senses, may seem larger than life, may burst their seams; but their visual logic ultimately asserts itself, or emerges from behind the seeming chaos. Even as her optical and mental focus zooms in to the molecular level and zooms out to the astronomical, a physics stabilizes Steiger’s mega-galactic heterogeneity. The world of form and color and movement she envisions may be bigger in essence than the world itself, but it is precisely the size of our minds.

Peter Frank, 2008

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.