Saturday's opening at W.A.A.S. Gallery had all of the components of the perfect party. Seriously. They went as fire as bringing in a remarkably nimble and still unsinged fire dancer, and liquid BLT shots from the Glut Life that came with a meat straw. (For the uninitiated, a meat straw is a hollowed out piece of dried meat, this appeared to be pepperoni, with little cherry tomatoes toothpicked to either side of the meat shaft. It's wonderfully phallic.) So the question is not whether or not the party was great (it was). It's this: Why, with two stories of Drew Merritt's "Chiaroscuro" exhibition to explore, did I leave with artistic blue balls?
I had to kick that question around for a while. I had to sleep on it. And while my answer might initially seem unrelated, stick with me. We're going to get back to Merritt's art in a minute.
I didn't know dick about shit when I was 19. I was in college in Denton and working nights at a Thai food restaurant. My boss was a remarkable women and she assumed a tough love maternal role in our relationship. She also had very vivid dreams. Often they revolved around the monks at her Buddhist temple and which of her heirloom dishes they were craving. But one night she had a dream about me. She informed me that I needed to visit the temple with her. There was a lesson that I needed to learn.
We drove 45 minutes on unpaved roads. We passed tiny towns and abandoned gas stations. My hopes weren't especially high. When we pulled in, I saw the beauty of it. Each dwelling and place of worship was hand built. They were adorned with plums, magentas, and other hues that didn't naturally exist on this plot of scorched earth. It felt like I'd finally captured one of those watery puddles that appears ahead of you on a Texas highway, but then vanishes, as mirages are known to do. This sanctuary was out of place. And that was by design.
I wanted to understand. When the ceremony started I visually assessed everyone around me and tried to follow suit. They were meditating through the chants, through the offerings. I played along, closing my eyes and trying to get to where they were. I thought I did a passable job. After the service, Noon took me to a building to sit with the monks and chat. One of them immediately called me out. He said that he watched me, he saw me struggling. He said that my meditation was like a "car stuck in neutral." The energy was there, but I wasn't doing anything meaningful with it. I wasn't taking it anywhere important. I wasn't driving it forward. That is how Drew Merritt's work affected me.
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By all formal standards, Merritt has the artistic expertise required to be a very good, possibly great, painter. But his message and energy is wrapped up in something else and needs to be shaken loose. Roaming through room after room of his work I felt like most pieces were trapped in painterly purgatory, a quasi-generic realm of street art turned gallery show. Rather than exploring a message and pushing a central idea through, Merritt showed us a lot of big canvases.
Yes, they would look nice on the wall of your loft. They would fill the barren space well. They might even get you laid or illicit catch-all adjectives like "edgy" and "dangerous" from people sampling your home bar. They would look like individual scenes from a graphic novel you've never read, or of a mural that you'd take a photo of if visiting from out of town.
But I want more than that. I want Merritt to flip the ignition and challenge me. His scenes are swinging against vague anti-establishment concepts, sure, but are doing so in a way that's so literal and all over the board that the end result is cliche. It's treading water. I want him to tap into the dark places that he enjoys and dig out something meaningful, then really explore it.
I want him to get out of neutral.