Looking at the Land: Merrill Wagner Paintings

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January 23– March 11, 2007

Fine Arts Center Galleries, University of Rhode Island

Kingston, RI—Merrill Wagner is an internationally recognized painter. Her acclaimed large-scale abstract paintings on steel and slate and concurrent lesser-known intimately scaled oil on canvas plein-air landscapes create together an uncanny, revealing bridge into her picture making. These cross-informing painting types—each variously addressing the evocative power of landscape—underscore the theme for this special exhibition called LOOKING AT THE LAND.

Merrill Wagner was born in Seattle, Washington, and had early training at Sarah Lawrence College (B.A.,1957) and then the Art Students League (1959-63), where she studied with Edwin Dickinson, the influential and renowned tonalist painter. In a recent interview Wagner recollected, “He [Dickinson] wanted us to look at things as though we’d never seen them before, whether it was a figure, a still life, or a landscape.” She also recalled her formative teacher’s remarks on format that have arguably equally stood as a permanent challenge to her. “I just think the square is always a satisfying configuration, and Dickinson said it was the hardest to compose in.” (“In Conversation: Merrill Wagner with John Yau and Eve Aschheim” in Phong Bui, publisher, The Brooklyn Rail, October, 2006, 18-20.)

As the subtitle of this exhibition suggests, a spirit of inventiveness and an embrace of the unconventional, learned early in her career, remain prominent hallmarks of Wagner’s mature artistry. An American Academy of Arts & Letters Award heralded her outstanding achievement in 2006.

The emphasis of the University of Rhode Island exhibition lies specifically in the mutually reinforcing structures of representation and abstraction, a penetrating theme of Wagner’s project, yet one never previously revealed publicly. This exhibition’s subtitle, Sky Land Water/Linen Steel Stone, intentionally juxtaposes elements of nature with their animated corollaries, the physical materials of Wagner’s art. It is through these varied materials, observed and interpreted, that Wagner’s distinctive artistry asserts itself.

Wagner is a long-term resident of New York City who shuttles regularly to the Pennsylvania countryside and also returns frequently to the majestic Pacific Northwest. In all of these environments, and across the seasons, she makes art informed by close looking at the quite varied characteristics and conditions of local landscape. Using rust preventive paint on square supports that are typically large, 2-part steel surfaces, or applying paint and pastel to multiple slate blackboard fragments, or painting with oil on stone oriented to be seen from above, in the upcoming exhibition we watch the artist create ever-fresh, absorbing works. Always surprisingly, Wagner conveys a sense of keenly understood natural phenomena. But she also demonstrates the unique possibilities of painting to forge its own structures for understanding the world.

Together with the sampling of easel scaled oil on canvas paintings, the exhibition will provide an informative “look at the land”—and far more. The vibrant yellow of forsythia bushes, and even the sudden intensity of fresh snow are optical encounters that become pictorial events in Wagner’s small paintings. As forsythia becomes cadmium yellow and migrates onto hot rolled steel as a band of pure color, Wagner ultimately uses what she sees to paint what she wants.

Illustrated catalogue with essay by J. Tolnick Champa accompanies the exhibition.

Main Gallery Reception

Sunday, January 28, 2-4 p.m.

Join us!

Main Gallery hours

Tuesday – Friday, 12 noon – 4:00 p.m.;

Saturday and Sunday, 1:00 – 4:00 p.m.

The FINE ARTS CENTER GALLERIES are open to the public without charge and are handicapped accessible.

The Galleries are closed on federal and local holidays.