Larry Merrill: Tree as Photograph
Nazareth College Arts Center Gallery
Rochester, New York
November 1–December 8, 2013
When photographer Larry Merrill set out to create a new body of work in 2008, he stumbled upon his subject during regular walks with his poodle, Tucker. Time spent with any companion—and attention given to their interactions—will widen the world a bit, more so if your companion is of another species, with a vastly different (and unapologetically enthusiastic) sensual experience. Merrill’s current exhibit at Nazareth College Arts Center Gallery, Tree as Photograph, focuses on some of the oldest living things we encounter in our daily lives, which often ironically become visual white noise as we concern ourselves primarily with other humans and our human creations.
Trees are inscrutable witnesses to the ages, but provide us with a steady sense of peace nonetheless, undisturbed by our major or trifling strife. This idea is summed up by poet Gary Snyder in his poem “Axe Handles” (1983): “As the crickets’ soft autumn hum/is to us/so are we to the trees/as are they/to the rocks and the hills.”
An evidently patient and enthusiastic companion for long rambles, Tucker joins the trees as co-subject in a selection of images, his red leash trailing among fallen foliage and downy snowdrifts. In Mendon Ponds Park, 2011, the beast blends in, seems a natural presence amid the undulating landscape and twisting vines. In the two Brighton, 2008 photographs, the pooch is half-shielded by a pine needle veil, and wading amid a ruby sea of Japanese maple leaves.
This body of work is aptly named. If a photograph uses light to create a drawing, then trees may be considered three-dimensional drawings made of light, their forms shaped by, and contingent upon, the pursuit of sustenance from space: green from glorious gold. It is easy to get lost in the beauty of the organisms. Our eyes dance along broken bark stretched with age, or rest on limbs covered in microcosmic worlds of moss, lichens, insects, birds, and mammals.
Merrill has a knack for capturing the sensuousness of the subject. The half-lit trunk in Central Park, 2009 is like the swell of a hipbone jutting from the shadows, with hints of gossamer spider thread clinging to the rough form. In Durand Eastman Park, 2013, the viewer’s gaze rests on downy grasses under a tangle of low branches heavy with flowers, eliciting that awakening-ache for a heady, vernal stroll.
The slow-changing poses of his subjects allow Merrill the time to perfect his perspective and locate the most pleasingly balanced views. The artist guides our glance skyward through the filtered green canopy in Brighton, 2009, where a central branch and its sub-branches trail out, lightning-like, in a Fibonacci fractal. Strata of abundant red berries break up the ashy tangle of branches in Durand Eastman Park, 2012, and a band of white flowers lines a horizontal branch amid loops of greenery in Mendon Ponds Park, 2009.
Merrill playfully wove a crimson and golden tree painting amid a pale, silky stand of trunks in Isaac Gordon Nature Park, 2009/2012. In Isaac Gordon Nature Park, 2009, the artist transformed the woods to a formal portrait studio by hanging a moody gray-blue backdrop behind a silvery double-trunked tree, but left the crunchy carpet of leaves in the shot.
A fourth dimension is added to these three-dimensional light drawings when we consider the marks left upon them as evidence of time’s passage. George Eastman House, 2011 is an up-close look at a bulbous trunk under its own canopy, mounds of expanded flesh distorting scars carved into its skin. In Durand Eastman Park, 2012, a promise to eternally love “Iris” is nearly immortal on an aged tree’s hide, while nearby, another trunk lies rotting and several others lean. The artist has placed images of historic paintings physically among the trees, turning the space into a gallery of human desire and intention.
In a small series titled Wyoming, 2010, aged trees disappear into the landscape—like waves passing back into a great sea, dissolving in stubbornly superb slow motion. In one shot, a ridge of a trunk barely rises from the landscape like some great backbone of a long-deceased giant. In another, a bump of remains in the foreground is nearly indistinguishable from the rolling hills behind it.
Rebecca Rafferty is a Rochester, New York-based writer. She is co-founder of the art collaborative The Lobby, and founder of the blog Rochester Art Front.