Wagner’s rustoleum

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I met artist Merrill Wagner recently at a reception at Larry Becker Gallery. It was a great opportunity to learn about the artist’s quirky paintings on steel panels. Like a lot of the work at Becker, the seemingly minimalist work snuck up on me after spending some time with it and I was ready to know more. (image is Wagner’s “Lengthen,” roughly 8 Ft. x 4 ft., 2003, rust preventive paints on steel plates)

Wagner, 69, in her fifth one person show with Becker, has a history of painting on objects other than canvas — like slate, found rocks, and here, thin, steel plates from an industrial supplier. That orientation to non-standard painting supports made me want to know if the artist trained as a sculptor. Indeed not, she’s a painter — with a highly sculptural sensibility. Wagner, who splits her time between New York and a farm in Benton, PA (she has horses) likes to use commercial paint products like Rustoleum on her steel surfaces and sometimes she works outdoors.

You can’t see the scale, here, but many of the works are wall-spanning, and they’re made of multiple panels that are abutted against each other and held on the walls by magnets. The no-fasteners let’s just plop those babies up on the wall aspect gives the objects more sculpture cred. And while the works are decidedly abstract and geometric the inspiration seems to come from the land, the sky, the barn: The works are homey and humble. And while they are sitting on the wall of a white box gallery there’s something about the combination of that Home Depot paint and steel that evokes kitchen science experiments and a process of art-making that is fueled by desire and love of hard work — the best allies in making something authentic.

I didn’t get a clear understanding of why the artist uses the industrial paint but she’s clearly into it and has a history of working outside, so I’m guessing her familiarity with the paint outside the studio made her want to use it in the studio. Whatever the reason, the paint is perfect. And the way Wagner handles it — daub, daub, drip, daub, gives the work a delicacy that belies the industrial grade materials. The steel plates feel enameled or patina-ed with a delicate skin of color.


I asked Wagner, who was born in Washington state, about the yellow piece, “Last Cut,” which is my favorite in the show. She told me she picked four separate shades of commercial yellow paint that she thought would go well together. That was it. And she liked the combination of the two horizontal plates with the two vertical ones. Nice and easy, no formalist this and that in the explanation. The school bus/OSHA yellow ambiance over the dark steel substructure is as familiar as those paint stripes down the middle of a road. (image is “Last Cut,” roughly 4 ft. by 8 ft., 2004, rust preventive paint on steel plates)

I don’t think that the symbolic meaning behind the yellow color — slow down, caution — factored into the artist’s decision to select it. But I found myself not only slowed down but stopped completely before the piece. Its beauty, its odd, domino like half-up, half-down composition; its wanting to be both landscape and portrait at the same time, made me see the entire world here. It also made me see the artist as one who loves the world in all its simplicity and complexity.

The show’s up to Mar. 19. Gallery hours are Friday and Saturday and other days by appointment. 215. 925.5389.

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