Paths and Motifs: The Work of Merrill Steiger

It is a remarkable experience to participate in a Merrill Steiger event. Her acrylic paintings’ obsessive detailing invoke such sharing experience as they generate a current of electric charge in the air. A hallucinatory vibrational aspect to the artist’s vision and working process refers to the mind de-regulated and de-conditioned from Western logos and its strictures. Steiger has mastered and finessed with considerable nuance the spatial involutions and sense of play which occurs through de-logicalized inversals and pratfalling in terms of scale shifts and color harmonies. Her idiosyncratic works sustain the eye and mind, because they seem to be in a continuous state of generative unfolding. This pictorial diversity and activity with its implications of alternative modes of reception as well as of perception is the result of Steiger’s remarkable control over her idioms. 

The point and line assumes hieratic power in her vision as it does in all “primitivistic” cultures whether it be the African, Asian, Mayan or Aboriginal “Dreamtime” ones. In some sense this relationship between those two primary visual syntactical units has a strong totemic pull: they form a type of fractal kinship in visual space, which can spin off into remarkably sophisticated systems of elaboration. If one looks at the macro level of construction one understands the microstructure; while the microstructure has within its coils the encrypted macroscopic map as well. There is a mesmerizing aspect to the painting of patterns that has affected the modern course of Western art history. Of course one need not travel too far to be in touch with Steiger’s liberation narrative derived in part from the European avant-garde in the early part of the 20th Century which took its cues from colonialized parts of the non-Western world (think of Gauguin’s Tahiti, and of Picasso’s Dogon masks) in the hopes of renewing the dying legacy of Old Europe by a thorough re-examining of life-principles in the service of reforming the sense of self. The subjective interior landscape (as explored by the likes of Kandinsky and, later, Mondrian) rather than the objective exterior landscape was deemed worthy and sufficient territory to transnavigate. 

In this country there is a growing awareness of indigenous cultures with their wealth of cultural capital accumulated over generations. I am here thinking of the Gees Bend quilt community as an exemplar of contemporary awareness of the thin line that separates the artist per se from the professional artist who has undertaken formal studies in art making and theory as well as history. The history of Pattern and Decoration in this country is widely known. Starting in the late sixties in L.A. (Miriam Shapiro) and in New York City (Joyce Kozloff, Valerie Jaudon) this movement was seen as a counter point to dominant High Modernism and Minimal and Post-Minimal movements. It was also seen as an expression of an impulse to create space through a decorative impulse. Dying down in the eighties P&D is finding new roots in a surge of promiscuous interest in alternative belief systems as well as a fascination with rebel culture as it emerged during the Vietnam War.

In the late nineties the early new century formerly debased art referring to hallucinatory rock posters as well as to shape shifting interest in the optically strenuous op-art work of Bridget Riley was fueled by a rising awareness of a newly emergent drug culture catering to night use, as well as a new interest in the interface of (industrial) design, ornamentation, crafts-based work, with the so-called “fine arts.” Additionally, artists began seriously looking at alternative visual structures (and belief structures) from the Far and Middle East (mandalas, tankas, masjid tiles).

Merrill Steiger’s synthetic paintings consist of several different types of work. The first is an organization of space and colour that works on a structural level primarily. “Yin” (2000) is a good example of this approach, which incorporates non-Western ideational patterns. Other paintings, such as “Chakra Universe” (2002), rely on biologic, biomorphic, or metabolic inferences to add bite to the work. Still other works have a mapping quality or a sensation, which infers an overhead bird’s eye view of the world. This suggestion of satellite surveillance cameras hovering over our planet creates politically charged works. Still other artworks seem to be thematically organized so as to conjure up vistas which incorporate the grids of urbanized living and motility.

Whatever her fascination, thematically Steiger’s work usually deploys disruptions of spatial orientation, disjunctions in scale, vivid color combinations and tonalities, and a high sensitivity to the nuances separating perceptions of order from disorder, structure from the fullness of void. Merrill Steiger has the awareness and skill to bring the viewer into contact with a range of different experiences ranging from the serious and the serene to the boisterously playful and transcendent. Any way you take it (or find it) Merrill Steiger’s strongly pulsating imagery stems from this artist’s radical involvement with the parameters of wonder and of exploration itself. 

D.F. Colman, 2006

D.F. Colman is an art historian and writer residing in Manhattan.