The Artist As Critic: Art That Inspires

An Interview with Eric Merrell Discussing His Salton Sea Haze and Gustav Klimt's (1862-1918) Attersee, 1909 by Stephanie Campbell (Summer 2013 issue, CAC Newsletter).

Salton Sea Haze, 30" x 30", © Eric Merrell

Salton Sea Haze, 30" x 30", © Eric Merrell

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Attersee, 1901, Oil on canvas, 31.57" x 31.57" Leopold Museum, Vienna

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Attersee, 1901, Oil on canvas, 31.57" x 31.57" Leopold Museum, Vienna

Eric Merrell was recently interviewed by Stephanie Campbell for the Artist As Critic series featured in the California Art Club Newsletter (previously featured artists include John Asaro, Amy Sidrane, and Tony Peters, among others). Here is the article:

STEPHANIE CAMPBELL: When did you first learn of Gustav Klimt, and how did he and his work impact you?

ERIC MERRELL: It was in my early college years, while I was at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia that I first learned about Gustav Klimt. I was initially introduced to his figurative work, which is what he is best known for, but a few years later I cam across a book that was specifically dedicated to Klimt's landscapes. Immediately, I was intrigued by his use of color and shapes, and found his landscape compositions innovative and fresh.

SC: Can you tell us a bit about Klimt's era?

EM: Klimt was classically and conservatively trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts where he focused on architectural painting. His career began as part of an intimate group of painters with his brother, Ernst, known as the "Company of Artists." The group provided him with important public projects including interior ceiling murals in large buidings on the historic Ringstrasse in Vienna. One of his most successful series was the "Allegories and Emblems." Some years later he became one of the founding members of the Vienna Secession movement. The secessionists were a group of many different kinds of artists who were trying to find a bigger and newer voice, but not necessarily with the purpose to get rid of the tradition. They were just trying to find their own place in the art world.

SC: How do you classify yourself as an artist?

EM: That's hard to say. I feel an affinity with the California Impressionists and also with some of the Romantics, but I don't know if it's completely accurate to place myself in those categories. The title "Romance of the West" that American Legacy Fine Arts gave to my summer 2011 exhibition was very apt. Romance in the classic sense is missing from the contemporary art world, and I think that is a big part of what my work is about. The ideal American West, pulling oneself up by your bootstraps and making something out of an opportunity, is something that I feel is lacking today.

SC: What ultimate effect would you like to have on society as an artist?

EM: I want to show that there is still something new that can be said with painting. I want to paint subjects they may have otherwise not thought of as being paintable. I find myself avoiding "traditional" perspectives of landscapes and digging a little deeper. For example, some of my latest interests have been painting right at dusk and during the middle of the day, periods which many artists refer to as "flat light" as there are no shadows to use for contrast. Of course, the world doesn't change from 3-dimensional in the morning to 2-dimensional at noon and back again in the afternoon - these situations are all paintable, they just need to be approached differently. I have also found that nocturnes provide a lot of room to explore artistically. In these types of situations I find I can solve some of these problems by playing with abstractions, shapes, and color. By doing so, I hope to show people how to see things from a different perspective. I truly enjoy taking a very traditional scene and making it my own, as Klimt did.

SC: How would you compare your style to that of Klimt's?

EM: Our color sensibilities are different, as is with every artist, because color becomes a very personal thing. Our training is also very different; he was trained under the much more classic academy and atelier style, whereas my education was (initially) based more on commercial illustration. Despite these differences I feel a kinship with Klimt. I can relate to the way that he saw the world. He didn't just do landscape for landscape's sake, he was doing something more unique with it.

SC: How do you think your painting Salton Sea Haze and Klimt's Attersee are similar and how are they different?

EM: Though our color sensibilities are different, our palettes are similar in this case where our use of colors are in the same family, such as the silvery violets and the cooler sea greens. I wasn't familiar with Klimt's painting, Attersee, until after my wife Ramona, went to Austria and saw it in the Leopold Museum. She emailed me a picture of it, because she thought the similarity (including the square format) was uncanny to my Salton Sea Haze. Despite how similar the tones are, the paintings are climatically different: Attersee depicts the cool damp European climate while Salton Sea Haze shows the dry heat of the southern California desert.

SC: What do you find particularly interesting about the Salton Sea, and what do you think Klimt saw in Lake Attersee?

EM: I've become more interested in temperature and color contrasts, beyond value contrasts, and because the desert lends itself to those qualities I often paint there. In particular though the grand scale of the Salton Sea and the fact that not a lot of artists have explored it as an appealing subject matter, gives it a pioneer aspect. It also has a bad stigma to it (drug trafficking, dead fish, and abandoned trailer parks) but I want to show the beauty that is there that people don't think about. The feminine aspect of depicting a body of water is what first comes to mind with Klimt as inspiration for Attersee, as his work often featured women. There is also the challenge of painting a body of water, Unfortunately most of what we are taught about Klimt relates to his figures, historically his landscapes and the inspiration behind them have received little attention.

SC: How would you compare Klimt's landscapes to his figurative work?

EM: They all have a mosaic quality. A 2006 LACMA exhibit of Klimt's work had a few figures and a few landscapes. The exhibition allowed people to see that although the subject matter is different in the paintings, there is a lot of crossover between the two areas. His landscapes may have been more of a breath of fresh air to him, because most of his figures were commissioned works, which meant dealing with individuals and committees, while his landscapes would have been painted by personal choice.

SC: What in particular attracts you to Klimt's Attersee?

EM: There is something about this painting that always seems to retain a certain freshness; it's one of those paintings that you can keep looking at and it never gets old. It has a contemplative quality that can put you into a meditative state.

SC: Do you think that you and Klimt were trying to achieve the same visual effect?

EM: I feel like he was honoring traditions, while still using his own voice and creating something different. I hope that is something I am also achieving. I'm in this funny position contemporarily where I feel as though I'm more modern than a traditionalist, but I'm too traditional for the modernists. Somehow, I like that.

SC: How directly do you think Klimt's style has influenced you?

EM: I don't think his style has influenced me so much, but it's rather the way he sees things in simple shapes and design. Our textures and brushwork are different, but the way he views the world and translates that onto his canvas has had a big impact on the way I see the world.

SC: How do you feel Klimt has influenced other contemporary artists?

EM: Klimt was so unique in his own way that it is hard for people to be directly influenced by his work without having their work inadvertently look like his. Indirectly, I think that he has influenced contemporary artists such as myself in a way that inspires us to follow our own voice.