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Michael Merrill: Nights at the Museum

With the resurgence of painting in Montreal, and on the heels of the recent successful swell of “Extreme Painting,” it seems that galleries here are awash in paint this fall. One is often hard-pressed to distinguish between a refreshing vitality in painting and a current propensity towards highly polished, aesthetically calculated condo art.

Occasionally, magical pieces can be had for the viewing, with Galerie Roger Bellemare being a consistent bellwether of understated excellence. The same goes for his current exhibition of Michael Merrill’s work, “In-between Paintings.”

A participant in 2008’s Quebec Triennial at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, Michael Merrill is known for small, tightly configured paintings that serve up contemporary art mitigated by its surroundings. A wide-angle installation view at a blockbuster MOMA exhibition or a lone Josef Albers sitting in the storage racks of a museum provide subject matter. Notions of appropriation are tweaked: a well-known work is seen not as a vaulting horse for intellectual gymnastics, but as an object embedded in a context more mundane than aesthetic, wryly asserting an earlier, more elemental way of constructing paintings—by observation.

Merrill, who has gleaned much of his imagery during his tenure as a gallery technician, has produced a series of medium-to-large ink-on-paper works that examine the structure of the museum itself. They are parallel studies between shows, a bridge to a future exhibition at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal in 2011.

In three successively numbered works—Ducts 1, 2 and 3—the storage-rack area of a museum is laid out as an integrated whole: paintings, racks, windows, ducts and other structural forms emerge from the puddling of layered washes. The pictorial structure breathes out of a delicate, overlapping web. The stacked and ducted guts of the museum, held in volatile tension with the loose play of medium, underlines the title of the exhibition.

The Scaffold series uses the construction site underneath the MBAM’s newly acquired Erskine and American United Church, which until recently was resting on temporary supports during a massive excavation underneath. The inks balance as precariously as Merrill’s subject; the overlapping washes intimate structure but also fight the emergent image. In Scaffold 1, the surface is unified by a precarious tension between the constructed image and a gentle buildup of ink washes. The one-off nature of the medium makes the works hover evocatively between idea and execution, construction and collapse.

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