The exhibition is a breakthrough for Mertens. In the past, her work seemed to suffer from a separation between concept and object. Here, the concept is fully embodied in the work.
As the Stars Go By is an exhibition of seven stitchings on cotton, all measuring 41x97.5”, long horizontal rectangles of black cotton marked by white and almost-white yellow, blue and brown threads. They hang on the wall directly and show well in the intimate space of the gallery.
Simple aesthetic decisions: white against black, small marks in a large field, abandoning bed-like pedestals on the floor for the wall make for a sensory experience equivalent to the pleasure and awe of looking at a clear night sky full of stars.
By abandoning the bed-pedestals, Mertens has taken her work out of the field of quilts and begun a conversation with painting, daring to converse with painting as an artist stitching. Her work can be seen in the lineage of both Lenore Tawney’s weaving and Agnes Martin’s painting. At the same time, the works’ relationship to the gallery
space and to the wall, expands the possible reach of her work, making it potentially architectural.
The subject of these seven pieces are violent moments in American history, from Columbus’ discovery in 1492 to Baghdad/2003. The repeated concentric circles and half-circles of white in black are dramatic. The Baghdad piece has the thickest stitches and most contrast between figure and ground. The Hiroshima piece has the faintest marks and the most random field. The Martin Luther King piece has the deepest space with all the stars seemingly wheeling around a tiny figural element.
My one question has to do with Mertens’ statement. She says that “ultimately I am simply documenting an impassive natural cycle [the stars] that is oblivious to the violence below.” I wonder. By choosing hand-stitching, an historically female activity that is allied with patience, loyalty, discipline but that also literally knits figure to ground, the artist seems unconsciously, perhaps, to be coming down on the side of the stars being involved in our fate. Mythically speaking, sewing, weaving, knitting were ways women made things happen. As Caesar said to Brutus, our fate is in our stars. As recent astronomers and physicists seem to be saying, although the universe may be expanding, it seems also to be more interwoven. It would be interesting to see how Mertens’ exploration of this view of the stars might further empower her visually eloquent work.
Anna Von Mertens at Jack Hanley Gallery. As the Stars Go By Through Sept. 2.