Thom Merrick: The New Landscape

Those familiar with Thom Merrick will probably first think of his sculptures, although in his first show at American Fine Arts in New York included abstract paintings as well. And while for many years Merrick has produced and created installations in New York and elsewhere he has turned his endeavors to painting. More specifically his paintings are focused on the landscape just outside of Los Angeles in the desert area known as Twentynine Palms.


At the beginning of this new century Merrick was making big changes for himself and his art: moving back to California and embarking on painting as his mission. He had played with painting and drawing over the years, focusing on the process by which images came into being; using computers to create drawings that would then be turned into paintings. Once west, he set up his studio in a remote area of the desert 150 miles east of Los Angeles at the base of the Joshua Tree National Park and began to look and wander and absorb these new surroundings.


Thom Merrick in his studio

Thom Merrick in his studio


Merrick writes in a recent e-mail:


I work with the landscape since it’s what’s right in front of me.  I have always done just that, worked with what was in my immediate environment. Moving here has been about making decisions about what (is) important and putting myself in that limited environment consciously. It’s been about cleaning one’s mind and going back to basics. Painting is the most direct response to something so big and all encompassing; closer to hand writing, and saying what you mean…


The move was revelatory. Early on around 2006 one dealer jumped on the new paintings Merrick began to make in this new place. The paintings began to receive compliments and attention. Some were shown in 2011 in New Orleans at Arthur Roger Gallery alongside other painters including Joan Snyder, and Squeak Carnwath in a show entitledAspects of a New Kind of Realism. Recently one was acquired by the Crocker Art Museum, since he, like Wayne Thiebaud, is a native son of Sacramento. Another sold to a private collection and the interest continues to grow. These first images have led to a tantalizing body of works, several key works to be shown at the Metro Show next month in New York


Some decades earlier Agnes Martin too shifted her life to the west and she writes about the influence of the New Mexico desert on her paintings. It causes a silence, a long silence and profound meditation articulated through subdued minimal line and almost monochromatic color. For Merrick the desert is a verdant plain; light filled and a land extolled for the wild variety of flora described in patches of bright hues and bold tints that reverberate across the surface of his canvas.


Zind or Zand

Zind or Zand, oil on canvas, 2013, 72 x 72″



Universe, oil on canvas, 2013, 72 x 72″


He added in the same e-mail conversation:  I prefer the relation to Agnes Martin and a response to nature. Bringing to it only what one wants to handle. Nothing else.

Over time the paintings have become more complex, the subtle color and nuance of desert light making a strong impact on the artist and transforming his view of the desert from a simple arrangement of contrasts to far more complicated and enriched arrangements and patterns of both color and form.


At first there was a distinction between ground and sky, and balance if you will of two distinct but visual harmonious fields. As his observation of the landscape terrain became more astute the distinction between sky and earth became less defined and the atmospheric qualities of shifting daylight enter into the equation. The paintings become a physical calendar of days of bright sunlight, the dry winds, change of seasons and the rotating timetable of plants, trees and flowers.


In some it is apparent we are looking onto a view of an area of landscape, in others the interweaving of patterns of color becomes so intense that the landscape seems almost flat, and the picture is transformed from a landscape to a kind of abstract talisman of what it means to see the desert.


Merrick employs color the way a sculptor employs form. No illusions or tricks. It is very clear that the paintings are built layer upon layer and color by color; dismantling the environment, if you will, and reassembling it piece by piece, bit by bit, color by color in a manner not too distant from the methods of the Pointillists at the turn of the last century.


Merrick is deeply invested in these works, and this shows in the range of colors and tones we find. They are the most expressive of his experience of living and working in this distinctive terrain and because color is so connected to emotional states of mind, we can almost read the feeling: a somber blue or gray, a rich gold and purples, pinks and yellows abound.


To come back to Wayne Thiebaud, a comparison of the two artists is not without merit. This younger son follows-some two generations later-in ways similar to the elder statesman of the California landscape painting. While Thiebaud is sharp and wry in his observations of hills, clouds and rivers, Merrick is reflexive in his contemplation of similar terrain. Thiebaud is rigorous, the consummate draughtsman and composer. Merrick is passionate, reflecting onto the canvas what he sees and feels before him. Thiebaud is objective in tone; Merrick subjective in style.


But also at the root of his thinking is this idea: I think I am anti-pop, nature produces repetition in the desert because that’s all that can survive, it’s free of economic models and theory. Mass production produces sameness because it’s cost effective. There’s a distinction important to my art here.



Mother, oil on canvas, 2013, 36 x 72″


High Plain Overture

High Plain Overture, oil on canvas, 2012, 30 x 40″


The 5th of July

The 5th of July, oil on canvas, 2012, 72 x 60″