Many hands make bright work

UQ Art History student Taylor Hall takes a look at
Art Museum commission – Lara Merrett’s
High Stakes.

For some time, painters and their studios have been largely poeticised.

Visions of a solo artist sitting at their easel come to mind, applying delicate layers of oil paint to their canvas as soft, cascading light fills the studio. While this image may be slightly dramatic, our idea of the process of painting still seems to be quite conventional. An artist paints an artwork and this artwork is then placed in the white cube of a gallery for an audience to view it.

Sydney-based artist Lara Merrett thrives on relinquishing the conventional control of a painting through its creation. Merrett actively deconstructs the medium in High Stakes, a new commission for UQ Art Museum. Blurring the line between process and outcome, the artwork exists in three stages. Each element of Merrett’s practice is performative, becoming essential to its final, interchangeable form.

The beginning

Initially, Merrett conducted a field trip with the staff of the museum, travelling an hour north of Brisbane to Crystal Waters in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. Directors, curators and assistants alike harvested lengths of bamboo, which would eventually become drying racks for Merrett’s paintings. The trip was fundamental to cultivating an artist-museum relationship, restructuring the exhibition-making process from the outset.

The collaborative process

The second phase of the artwork existed as a temporary outdoor studio that inhabited the grounds directly in front of UQ Art Museum. For 10 days, 60 students became artists and collaborators, establishing a new relationship with the museum and lifting the veil between creation and the final artistic product.

From the project’s inception, Merrett sought to break down the tradition of painting. The relationship between the artist, gallery and audience has always been a compartmentalised one. We often take for granted our roles as makers, negotiators and spectators. Though, just like the pigments on Merrett’s canvases, these roles seep into one another.

The installation

Finally, the work was installed within the exhibition space, where it is open to the public until January 18, 2020. Residing in proximity to the outdoor studio, High Stakes makes an instant reference to its collaborative process.

It is here that Merrett lulls you into a soft reverie of pigments, each colour blooming across the malleable canvasses on the floor. The installation creates a vivid environment for the audience to wrap themselves in, allowing visitors to morph into the paintings’ surfaces and to lay among the canvas ‘caves’ and pillows.

The process of viewing art in a gallery is an inherently social experience, but one that many viewers are hesitant to partake in. Audience members are challenged with the pressures of seeing ‘correctly’ and faced with the tension residing between themselves and the artwork. However, as you lay within Merrett’s work, captivated by its vivid colourations, these challenges melt away.

Most satisfyingly, the yearning we have all had to touch, roll around in, and step into an artwork is fulfilled. Its softness becomes imbued with its brightness and creates an unintimidating experience. The many hands that created and participated in Merrett’s work adds to the installation as a social object. The work isn’t static, but shifts with every viewer, constantly in a state of collaboration.

It is apt that Merrett employs paint as her medium, with its ability to seep into the fibres of the canvas, to be effortless and fluid. Each unpreventable drip takes on its own autonomy, free from the artist’s control. Lingering in the indefiniteness and risks associated with paint and collaboration, Merrett’s practice thrives on this spontaneity. Hence, her installation’s title High Stakes not only alludes to its large bamboo pillars, but also the ‘stakes’ associated with trusting the unpredictability of both paint and co-collaborators.

Merrett states that “knowing everything prior to making something stops people being creative and making mistakes”. It is with this ethos that the work could be described as a social collaboration. Ultimately, Merrett promotes an artistic process capable of fostering a safe space, which breaks down hierarchies, allowing us to question and unlearn our own internalised assumptions about artwork and exhibitions.

High Stakes: Lara Merrett

Exhibition: July 26 2019-January 18 2020

See what else is on at UQ Art Museum.

All installation photographs by Simon Woods.

All installation photographs by Simon Woods.

About the author

Taylor Hall is President of UQ’s Society of Fine Arts (SoFA). She is also a gallery assistant at Lethbridge Gallery and an intern with the Queensland Children's Hospital Arts Program and Onespace gallery.