New York

Thom Merrick

Pat Hearn Gallery

Thom Merrick’s formally intriguing, quasi-functional hybrid constructions betray an admiring nod to the antiform experiments of the ’70s, and a more ambivalent one to the commodity-oriented work of the ’80s. While the artist’s vocabulary of industrial materials and manufactured products such as power tools, spare parts, and steel shelves, reveals certain affinities with the former precedent, a tendency toward cultural/commercial specificity points to the latter. Nevertheless, Merrick’s work constitutes neither an exercise in formal reduction nor a conceptual critique of commodification. The two pieces in this show evoke these precedents, yet avoid easy categorization.

Merrick’s large construction, Untitled, (all works 1990), which is comprised of a plywood wall both bisected by and suspended from a steel shelving unit, suggests a scaled-down version of a wall from a prefabricated house of the kind that springs up overnight in empty suburban lots. The shelves stand in for scaffolding, while nylon rope and a couple of metal gadgets suggest heavy construction tools. Reduced in size, but nevertheless monumental, the wall seems strikingly out of context. This sort of uncanny decontextualization is a familiar strategy of Merrick’s, and one that calls attention to the formal characteristics of materials and objects, without stripping away their functional and symbolic significance. Any formal reverie is interrupted by the unavoidable details—stenciled markings on the wood, the brand names of the tools—that betray the components to be store bought. Art’s status as commodity is revealed, but Merrick’s project is not limited to this point. He eschews the slick emptiness of the commodity for a rough, formal richness that both confounds and sustains the specificity of the wall and its various parts; this limbo between form and function is Merrick’s calling card.

A simple yet surprising multivalent room-size installation entitled Desert, consists of a disassembled Triumph motorcycle, the parts of which are scattered across the gallery floor. Ranging from tires and frame to nuts and bolts, the parts are spaced evenly, save the occasional but anticipated irregularity caused by stumbling viewers. Merrick has utilized the room’s potential to imply the vast space for which the work is named, by transforming it into a pristine industrial tableau complete with horizon line and vanishing points. The isolation of the parts and their careful placement in a new environment invites the viewer to alternate between experiencing each part as a separate formal entity, and visually reconstructing the motorcycle.

While these new works reveal the strategic caution of one who is well aware of recent art history, they nevertheless constitute bold gestures. Merrick’s physical rather than theoretical dissection of a cultural object encourages a tentative relocation of the subject. He disorients, then reorients his viewers within a reflective and experiential space that inspires self-awareness, but not necessarily alienation.

Jenifer P. Borum