On ViewDowns & Ross
July 8 – September 13, 2020
The seven-and-a-half-foot-square canvas BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 89 (2019) by Rute Merk presents a disquieting vision of humanoid perfection: a confident androgyne blue goddess on a blue background. Like the depiction of the Vitruvian man, Merk’s model is inscribed in a square and stares out at us blankly. Instead of spreading limbs à la da Vinci or Cesariano, a hoop skirt in blue velvet supplies the diagonals to contrast with the solid verticality of the model’s trunk. But the roster of desirable proportional ratios to which the model ascribes has been modified and updated from those of Augustus’s obsequious architect almost 2,100 years ago (still, the damage was done the minute he published them). Marcus Vitruvius Pollio’s perfect man was invented largely as a source and reference, in nature, for the scaling and proportions of architectural elements and structures like columns, architraves, aqueducts, and basilica. Merk’s figures in the exhibition SS20 are in the service of the fashion industry, and in a larger context are the handmaidens and footmen of Capital. Servants in terms that they are literal personifications of lavish consumption in the service of tremendous profit (Balenciaga grosses over $1 billion a year), aka the dizzying accretion of capital. There is the tongue-in-cheek proposition that everyone must wear clothing and it has a use value—but no one needs a $95 pair of socks. Art on the other hand has no determinate purpose and thus its purchase is a total enigma to most. Merk has chosen this year’s summer collection of the fashion house of Balenciaga as her source material, but as in Look 89 and her other figure studies/portraits, her primary focus is beauty and its looming presence. The artist’s portraits examine both the specific and everyman quality of the runway fashion model, and how digital processes have, like all art forms before them, accepted and rejected the capricious notion of human physical perfection. Where Merk truly excels is in her negotiation of painting’s appropriation of new modes of seeing. In SS20 Merk deftly transliterates Fashion’s beautiful living mannequins into the digitally rendered, awkward cyborgs we know primarily from first-person-shooter (FPS) games, and renders these beings in traditional oil on canvas.
Aesthetically, Merk approaches two juggernaut problems in her work: the choice between engaging the craft, or “analog” practices of painting, without embracing a dull backwards-gazing anachronistic subject matter like nudes or faux-history painting, and dealing with the digital in contemporary painting practice, again without becoming mired in the attendant typical subject matter (video games, VR porn, etc.). Fashion is a highly suitable intersection for an examination of these issues. Apart from the clothes themselves, which for Merk become another texture to be mapped, fashion sells a standard or implication embodied in human appearance, whether it’s beauty, access to power and money, or an exclusive know-how loosely under the heading of coolness. In BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 7 (2019), BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 7, II (2020), and BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 40 (2020), we are offered a variety of shoulder length portraits with ever-so-slightly indistinct features. High cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and a carefully trained bored and contemptuous look immediately place them as runway models. These are specific individuals whose names we could determine with a little research, but besides sharing that angular “look” that is sought after in the industry, Merk has transformed them into characters in her own FPS game. The chins and noses are negligibly off-kilter as the artist has wrapped the surface bearing the image of the face over a digital skeleton/marionette. What is perceptible, and what Merk really plays with, is the bizarre clipping and angularity of the silhouettes and hairlines. The sfumato brushwork of the faces contrasts with the sharp tape-masked edges of the hard separations between figure and ground, cloth, fiber, and flesh. It’s a nod to hard-edged abstraction of the ’60s as well as photoreal painting. In the case of the portraits, ill-fitting beautiful skin over an agile but robotic frame is a fertile metaphor for the problematic parasitic relationship between fashion and the human body IRL that leads to side issues and industries such as anorexia nervosa and ubiquitous plastic surgery. The canvasses that depict the legs and torsos of the figures from the front and side, without heads, seem to be addressing fashion in terms of a different allegory than body image, instead interpreting the performance of the walk with more of an insider’s perspective—the persistence of a singular brand’s style, as it has transitioned, yet in some respects remained consistent, over its more-than-100-year history.
The painterly discourse between Merk and CGI is more nuanced. Painting’s engagement with technology goes as far back, as do painting and technology, while the problematic back-and-forth with photography and painting has been a constant for the past 150 years. High quality digital rendering, scanning, and imperceptible collaging of imagery has resulted in the rich ooey-gooey hyper-real canvasses of painters such as Richard Patterson and Glenn Brown, and an obsession not with reality but with rendering a rendering of reality. The photorealistic techniques in painting that this has engendered often yield a very seductive, placid flatness and obsession with surface, be it matte or glossy, into which Merk happily buys. The traditionally trained Lithuanian artist creates her own oil paints and clearly enjoys faithfully reproducing the odd manipulations of facial structure that read as eerie distortions, or faces caught in a slight movement, like Max Headroom’s tick. Backgrounds, as in the larger figure studies SS20/1 (2020), BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 51 and 61 (2019), and BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 16 (2019), also play with the intersection of paint and digitally enhanced special effects, positioning the bodies of the models, sometimes headless and frozen in the jarring clipped runway walk, against glossy expanses of hazy fractals or Aurora Borealis-esque color bursts.
The artist indulges herself and us in perhaps the most sentimental but unequivocally arresting image in the exhibition: Taihei (2020). Meaning “peace” in Japanese, the image of a downward facing crescent moon shimmers over a bouquet of what appear to be blue clematis or anemones. The flowers are regurgitated digital entities in the same way as the dour runway models, but there is a palpable psychic decompression accompanying the de-escalation of social signifiers. SS20 is a commentary on the ubiquity of a specific type of beauty in this post-internet world, the mythologizing of beautiful but otherwise vapid people, and their disorienting ramifications on our society. Despite the perfect phrasing, it is not true that “beauty is truth, truth beauty”; really, it isn’t. It is nothing more than an evolutionary gimmick of the selfish gene that is “paid with sighs aplenty/ and sold for endless rue,” to which Rute Merk’s self-consciously artificial cardboard avatars attest.