Critics’ Picks

Rutene Merk, Aki, 2019, oil on canvas, 55 x 63".

Rutene Merk, Aki, 2019, oil on canvas, 55 x 63".

New York

Rutene Merk

Downs & Ross
96 Bowery 2nd floor
April 28–June 9, 2019

Choose your fighter: Verrocchio’s bronze David, 1473–75, an epicene precursor to Michelangelo’s opus, who stands winsomely over Goliath’s head; or Aki Ross, the valiant protagonist of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s CGI breakthrough Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within (2001). These two prove the most familiar muses in Rutene Merk’s “Sprites,” the Lithuanian painter’s first New York solo show. The parallels between Verrocchio and Sakaguchi eventually cohere: Both creators are revered for their fierce, lifelike rendering of the human figure. Yet in Aki, 2019, and David at Night, 2018, Merk coarsens this realism with a late ’90s RPG aesthetic and flush, screenlike facture. Informed by video games, the internet, and various tropes from antiquity, her vaguely Impressionist, always phantasmal portraiture loops us into avatars’ afterlives—take Scribe, 2019, a gauzy portrayal of the ancient Egyptian bust that went viral for sharing Michael Jackson’s likeness. It makes one wonder: When is an image no longer an image?

Merk has spoken before of being inspired by tronies, a Dutch genre devoted to the exaggerated facial expressions of stock characters. Her own subjects’ visages, though, remain impassive. Consider Kamea, 2019, a laminated-looking androgyne who genuflects amid beige and green . . . lily pads? Too bleary to tell. The press release features definitions of the word sprite, one of which tells us that it’s a graphic-design term for background manipulation. In Merk’s laggy simulacra, story lines become lives, agency is as real as fantasy, and fantasy’s reality must not be trivialized. She gives her sprites souls only to maroon them in depthlessness. Just look at them: as detached as the simpering head at David’s feet.