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Review: Marisa Merz at the Hammer

Marisa Merz,  Living Sculpture, 1966. Aluminum. Tate, London. Purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor 2009.
Marisa Merz, Living Sculpture, 1966. Aluminum. Tate, London. Purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor 2009.
Tate London, 2015.

Off-Ramp arts correspondent Marc Haefele reviews "Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space" at the Hammer Museum in Westwood through August 20.

In Marisa Merz’ Turin apartment, you couldn’t the tell the art studio from the living space. And at 91, she is still producing art there ... art that often reflects its domestic origin but also is so singular and assertive it seems to tap you on your shoulder and tell you to turn around and look at it.

Merz became active in Italy over 50 year ago as the only woman in the '60's avant garde movement called Arte Povera (Art from Poverty). Now she is the only member still active. Arte Povera fashioned humble or humble-originating art in a challenge to American-originated, commerce-saturated Pop Art.  The movement protested the affluence, shallow prosperity, and materialistic insensitivity of the post-La Dolce Vita Italy.  She brought forth creations that are assertive without ostentation or pretension, yet which pique your sense of wonder.

Although she eschewed the term “feminist,” Merz was part of a forceful woman-empowerment surge in 1960s Italy.  The '60's brought Italian translations of feminist literature by Simon de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, as well as writings by domestic activists like Gabriella Parca. They also brought a modern divorce law and a substantial crescendo of emergent female talent -- like Merz’s -- into the world of arts and letters.

The show at the Hammer is her first American retrospective (it debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum Breuer Annex earlier this year). It was organized by Ian Alteveer, curator in the Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, and Connie Butler, chief curator of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

You are greeted by a fountain as you enter the exhibit. A white carved fiddle in a tiny pond under tiny arcs of water, it delights in its simplicity. But then your attention is overwhelmed by the contrastingly massive “Living Sculptures” dangling from the gallery ceiling.

Merz’s  aluminum humanoid constructions are like old suits of armor hanging in an attic of Camelot or like giant mutant metallic jellyfish, formed in domesticity by scissors. One of her favorite shapes is a triangle, suggesting her family unit, which included her late husband Mario (d. 2003) and her daughter Beatrice. Her home is her workshop and inspiration, and it shows.

Today, her daughter speaks of how it felt, living in an atelier-home, whose domestic notes included knitting needles, yarn, and thumbtacks incorporated in wall decor. Merz seems to have broken the traditional confinement of her domestic existence by inserting into it her artist’s studio and gallery. The transformation is heightened by reified common objects. A simple chair with an abundance of nails driven into its seat is clearly not meant for sitting.  It is to be looked at. So is a similarly altered table.

She uses everything from bubble wrap to nails to gold foil in her work. Due to exigencies of age, however, she has given up making her bountiful, fragile, unfired clay teste (heads) for large paintings on Japanese paper. At 91, she uses  special foot-stool-stepladder contrivance to work at the top of her largest paintings, whose medium is largely canned spray paint. Many of the portraits are almost expressionist female figures in vivid reds and yellows In contrast, she also makes tiny, perfect shoes -- like those Italians call “scarpetti”-- for herself and her daughter. There are many small drawings of heads, nearly all female, in a conventional small portrait format.

There many teste here, each one singular. Teste are often painted, they seem to peer at you from their plinths like stylized heads of sea serpents. A group of them (slightly resembling hand puppets) are displayed on a broad, square waxen base: the wax field must be recast every time the group is displayed, this is said to be an onerous process. But each showing will differ slightly.

Merz  does not give dates or names to most of her pieces, which are often reworked, again and again. Her present is her past and future. Even in the exhibition catalog, the pages are not numbered. Every encounter is timeless.

She has become fascinated with plain copper wire, which she obtains on large wooden spools. This wire is electricity’s favorite path, but she weaves it into shapes and fabrics, face masks, and dishes. There is a suggestion of crocheting, of confinement. And of transcendence of domesticity into something, well, hard-wired.

“The Sky is a Great Space” fills the Hammer gallery from floor to ceiling. It draws you in and sneaks up…  Look back over your shoulder: there is the unexpected, staring down at you.