Two Takes

If there were a muse named Ironia, it strikes me that she would be an inspiration for Rutene Merk and Lynn Hershman Leeson. The two images below have little in common other than depicting females. They both incite interest, however, by appearing to be what they’re not.


“Aki” (2019), oil on canvas, by Rutene Merk in her new show, “Sprites.” Credit Rutene Merk and The Downs & Ross, New York; Jeffrey Sturges.

The gamey image of “Aki” with its “eerie, unpainterly appearance” had for me the initial impact of a velvet Elvis. It might beckon to teenagers from a video arcade. Then I read the following:

Ms. Merk, a Vilnius-born, Munich-based painter… manipulates the figures and backgrounds in her paintings, simulating techniques like masking and 3-D texturing mapping in computer graphics. Her paintings also look as if they might’ve been sprayed or digitally printed, but they were created the old-fashioned, analog way, by simply painting on canvas. — MARTHA SCHWENDENER

(“New York Art Galleries: What to See Right Now,” NYTimes, 5-23-19)

I still don’t warm much to the picture, but knowing how it’s made provoked a second look. When working as a programmer I dreamed of painting deadpan pictures of computer screens. For me it was an idle fantasy of kicking over the traces; artists like Merk have run with the notion in some sense. The digital world that worked so hard to look, act, and sound analog is impishly modeled with analog media made to look digital. Who gets to decide, by the way, that painting on canvas is old-fashioned?


Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Roberta Getting Ready to Go to Work” (1976) portrays Roberta Breitmore, Ms. Leeson’s alter ego[,] in a multiyear performance piece that lasted throughout the ‘70s. Lynn Hershman Leeson and Bridget Donahue, New York.

“… [Lynn Hershman Leeson’s] alter ego, Roberta Breitmore, was a very living thing. She had a public life, she had a P.O. Box and Social Security number and I think even a passport. But she didn’t exist.” (Tilda Swinton)

(Ted Loos, “Inspired by Virginia Woolf, Curated by Tilda Swinton,” NYTimes, 5-22-19)

My experience of “Roberta Breitmore” begins and ends with this article. In the photo she has an appealing zaniness conveyed on several fronts: the big hair, the skewed spectacles, the quizzical stare, the title-driven context (“getting ready to go to work”), the studiously applied lipstick. Knowledge that she’s a meticulously contrived fiction boosted the wry kick I got from the image.

Whatever fizz both pictures generated was heightened, for me, by revelation from outside the picture space.

(c) 2019 JMN

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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