The two bodies of work by American artist Merrill Wagner, shown on two floors, appeared so distinct as to be almost irreconcilable. Downstairs, glossy fields of dark browns and greens on large steel plates hung on the walls. In one such painting—Finnegans Lane, 1990, an imposing work of eight by twelve feet—a layer of emerald, a green of an otherworldly density, was flanked by strips of raw steel that looked like cross sections of an agate. On the floor sat Untitled, 1996, a cluster of stones marked with blue paint, and Crooked Strait, 1995, a narrow path of irregular pieces of slate shot through with a thin line of white oil pastel. This style, somewhere between Minimalism and Land art, is that most associated with the artist, whose practice spans an impressive six decades. Wagner shares with the latter movement a concern with how materials are affected by time and the environment, yet her art has a different vulnerability to it: a humility that is surprising, given the apparent roughness and scale of the works. The effect is one of solemnity, a rare kind of dignity.
And here is where the small paintings up on the mezzanine made their incongruous yet entirely apt entry. These impressionistic pictures of flowers and trees were all produced en plein air between 1997 and 2001. Were they not so interestingly ugly, I might say that they were kitsch, but Wagner’s way of working the paint—seemingly not only with a brush but at times also with some harder tool, like a knife or spatula—results in a successfully blatant sense of corporeality. These are meadows and forests only when you’re squinting or at a distance. Up close, they make for a confrontation with the instability of perception itself—with the way in which, at every moment, flickering constellations of light, color, and movement are morphing out of what we think we just saw. On a practical level, they share with the steel and stone works a direct affiliation with nature, only here nature is understood on very different terms: as something intimate, delicate, and fleeting. The blossoms in Untitled (#14 June), 1997, are flowers as you’d find them in your garden—they could be gone tomorrow, cut or flattened by the rain. Untitled (#19 November), 1998, depicts the kind of forest where you might walk your dog one morning and find poetic transience in a sunbeam on autumn leaves.
The small paintings show nature as part of a subjective relation to what is literally close at hand. Conversely, what was represented in the seemingly nonrepresentational works downstairs was nature as force and time in a geological sense. In comparison to this, individual experience—a ray of morning sun, the sudden awareness of a flower, or even a whole life—is a mere speck. The stones Wagner painted were there long before and will remain long after her blue squares fade. That is the whole point.
And so the two ends of the temporal spectrum for which Wagner has developed such different yet equally acute languages do not exactly meet. Rather, like two eyes straining to remain focused, their disparity requires constant effort to reconcile. Accept the challenge, and you will be rewarded.