New York

Merrill Wagner

Fawbush Gallery

Merrill Wagner uses unpromising materials—old blackboard slate, rusted metal beams—to investigate formal issues such as framing and spatial illusionism. Wagner manages to drag ragged, timeworn objects into the laboratory of abstract formalism without sterilizing them. Her work deals with time and decay, and all that those forces suggest in broader human and ecological terms.

In these most recent works, slate surfaces are often scored with faint scribbles or lines that extend onto the walls themselves; elsewhere the artist covers areas of slate with chalk or enamel. But the core of the work is the studied arrangement of the slate fragments themselves. In Harrison Street, 1988, they are layered against the wall, creating a series of rectangular planes; in Jersey Avenue, 1989, they are superimposed in cross patterns. The ruled lines extend from layer to layer and eventually onto the wall; Wagner demarcates a pictorial realm only to break it off, leaving dangling threads of chalk. Elsewhere, overlapping rectangles of paint and slate define real and illusory flatness and depth. Verrazano, 1988, is built up of curved and rectilinear fragments, forming a composition recalling synthetic cubism. Yet Wagner abandons her inquiries at too basic a level; in such cases, one wishes she would either push the ideas to a higher degree of complexity or relinquish formalism and give freer reign to the materials themselves.

Indeed, the most interesting aspects of many pieces are the chipped edges and scarred surfaces in the stone itself. (Wagner finds her materials on demolition sites.) The aged beam of Verrazano curls at the top in rose petals of rusted steel; black paint peels off its shaft like bark from a tree. Such traces bring the works down from the cool, lofty heights of pure abstraction, particularizing the impersonal formalism of Wagner’s investigations, so that each element speaks of its own past.

Lois E. Nesbitt