Earnest C. Merritt III

at Arena, through December 22

T.L. Lange

at Mary Bell, through December 30

By Fred Camper

Ambiguous depth effects and the resulting dialogue between visible and invisible worlds are key to abstract expressionism and romanticism, and painters continue to draw on such effects today. Animals, objects, and abstract smears of paint all float in shifting relationships to one another in 14 paintings by Earnest C. Merritt III at Arena. In these gentle, seemingly twilit landscapes, objects and animals can take on human presences, the land or sky often seems alive, and painterly smudges hint at almost pantheistic worlds on the cusp of transformation. Merritt’s long, poetic titles (too lengthy to quote in their entirety)–stamped in white areas below the pictures–might seem pretentious if the work weren’t so supple and suggestive; these texts’ apparent naive faith in the power of paint and the spirituality of objects is a welcome antidote to pomo irony.

Towards the Personal Magnetism of a Particular Road takes a low vantage point on an almost barren road: there’s only a relatively thin band of sky at the top, and the sides of the road appear only at the far right and left. Road signs at the horizon create a movement into almost infinite depth, recalling Caspar David Friedrich’s sense of an invisible beyond. But smears of paint asserting the picture’s flat, constructed nature cover several stones in the road, adding an abstract element to the picture’s illusionism.

The central object in Particular Road is a crow perched on a paintbrush, two elements that seem to recapitulate the painting’s formal dualism: the crow suggests flight, an escape from materiality, while the brush reminds us we’re looking at a painting. Similarly, at first the crow and paintbrush seem to be hovering above the road, but both their shadows indicate they’re on the ground. A tiny ladybug under one of the crow’s feet and a worm in the bird’s beak– like other details Merritt adds–not only remind us of nature’s living presence but inject some humor. There’s no real self-deprecating irony here, yet Merritt seems to acknowledge the overt romanticism of his little narratives of transformation.

The title The Vague Cool Presence of God continues An Ode to the Curiosities of Night, followed by a list of the objects pictured. Here large stones and green plants seem to be struggling to emerge from behind messy overlays of paint–which might also represent the “seasonal fog” of the text. The stones are painted and collaged cutouts with a distinct presence, making the smears that cover them seem more powerful–I don’t know about God, but this strange ether does seem to exert some sort of invisible energy. The key object–again slightly humorous–is a precisely painted moth standing out against the gray fog, asserting the specificity of nature despite any “vague cool presence.”

Merritt, who was born in 1970 and has lived all his life in the Cleveland area, did traditional landscapes and still lifes when young, often painting with his father, a watercolorist. At a certain point, he told me, he realized that his work had become too much an exercise in literal depiction: “I became so interested in representing what I saw that I couldn’t just sit down and observe things anymore.” After graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1993, he stopped painting entirely and concentrated on poetry; when he resumed making art, his works centered on text. Indeed, there’s a literary quality to a series of eight small watercolors here, “Various Observations of a Brick.” In each painting a strangely round-edged brick with three visible holes is almost anthropomorphized, as if it were the protagonist of a picaresque tale: it’s tossed about in space or has burning matches placed in its holes to warm it. Bringing the brick to life, Merritt reveals the connections he sees between the animate and inanimate, the material and the spiritual.

Concepts of weight and weightlessness also contribute to Merritt’s spatial ambiguities. In Various Observations of a Brick #1, Merritt says, the brick sits on cracked concrete, and the bird shape on the ground is a shadow. But to me it looked as if the brick were perched improbably on some bare branches and as if the bird might be half hidden by fog–or imaginary. The second picture in the series, subtitled “being toppled by the sensual weight of bubbles,” shows the brick hovering above a crack in the concrete, seen through the largest bubble–and bent, as if the bubble were refracting light. Here the “real” bubbles are juxtaposed with an animated brick in a story so strange it makes mysterious ethers and the like unnecessary. Hinting at a human presence is the little ring at upper right that’s being used to blow the bubbles; a metaphor for human creativity like the paintbrush, it also adds a bit of humor. If Merritt sees his brick as spiritual, he also allows it to be toppled by even less substantial things.

The seventh painting in the series (“carted off by poppies dangerously open and closed and waiting to blossom”) shows the brick above the concrete with poppies floating around and even through it. Similarly, in A Lonely Finger Surrounded by Clover–the show’s smallest piece–a finger (also cutout) floats in a dark field of clover. The finger is even more suggestive of the human than the brick, and both hover mysteriously in the space. The meanings are ambiguous as well. Merritt says he chose a brick because it “has the capacity to build and destruct simultaneously, if you throw it through something.” The finger here could indicate death as well as life, standing in for a corpse in a field, pushing up daisies.

T.L. Lange’s 13 mostly untitled paintings and drawings at Mary Bell sometimes are centered on representational elements–a torso, an oil derrick, a signal tower. But I prefer his large, more abstract works, which are alive with potential meanings, heterogeneous surfaces, and shifting spatial effects. As in Merritt’s work, spatial ambiguity is no mere formal device–it’s a way of seeing the world. But while Merritt’s juxtapositions of depth and surface, weight and weightlessness, suggest the dual presence of material objects and transcendent spirituality, Lange’s harder-edged contradictions are less resolvable. As Lange, who lives in North Carolina, writes in his statement: “I derive the compositions from the beauty of chaos in decay, the colors of rusty pipes, and layers of billboard advertisements. Paintings are everywhere. I keep the studio floor littered with photographs, torn paper, flecks of paint, objects to trip over while looking for something else.” He juxtaposes vertical with horizontal shapes, text with images, collaged cloth and paper with cut or scraped-away surfaces.

One untitled work has the word “foray” written large across the top. A strip of vertical white cloth at the left is balanced by a horizontal, mostly white painted blob at right; the blob suggests a prone figure, and there’s an eye on the white strip, which hints at a lamppost. A cutaway area reveals another surface, and a dimly painted ladder shape might also be a strip of film. What I found most interesting here, as in Lange’s other abstract work, is the tension between unifying elements–marks connecting objects, forms that echo others, an overall tan tone–and the flat, built-up, cutaway, painted, or blank surfaces, which tend to disrupt unity. These spaces under stress are appropriate given that Lange takes part of his inspiration from our cultural glut of images and part from natural processes of decay.

Another, darker piece includes both rough abstract brushwork that projects outward and thick lines where the paint has been partly scraped away. To this mix Lange adds several “objects,” among them a gray box partly outlined in white near the top. Thicker white lines that seem to wrap the box like ribbons create a three-dimensional illusion, as if suddenly this flat surface could be entered. Small triangles occur throughout the composition, always paired–black triangles hover just above green ones–introducing a different kind of depth.

In another work, nearly square grayish tan cutouts are arranged to make a circle that fills much of the space–a sort of spatial paradox in itself. Abstract smears and other, more precisely delineated marks–the most striking is a black cloverlike shape–are superimposed on the globe, which suggests a planet or a sun. Indeed, most of Lange’s large abstractions have some of the complexity and completeness of self-sufficient worlds.