A passion for the void: Artists take different paths into emptiness

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 8:10 p.m.

As realistic and exacting to detail as they are, the paintings of Lindsay Merrill and Paul Rouphail on display at 707 Penn Gallery, Downtown, are still missing something. It may take awhile to realize what it is, until it hits you — that something is you.

Both recent graduates of Carnegie Mellon University (Merrill in 2009 and Rouphail in 2010), they may be young, but both are masters at capturing moments frozen in time, literally as tableau, as though the curtain had just gone up on a real world, void of people, just waiting for you to show up.

That's especially true of Rouphail's paintings, which focus on architecture and landscape common to bird- and people-watchers. This gives the experience of looking at them the mildly pleasurable feeling of seeing while being unnoticed, as if a ghost moving through a literal world unnoticed.

Here, the conflict between tradition and progress in both rural and urban settings, and the moods evoked by time of day, create a perpetual fantasy world that is closely aligned with our own. In “Flight Over a Small City” progress, represented by an airplane in the sky high above, looms over the past, represented by a pre-war apartment building.

The landscapes that accompany Rouphail's urban images are an attempt to further propagate this sense of perpetual fantasy by suggesting the boundlessness of the flat horizon, as in “Bus Ride I” and “Bus Ride II,” in which the great expanse of the American Midwest is captured in hill upon rolling hill.

In “Sunday, 3pm,” Pittsburgh is the likely backdrop, and as the title suggests, the streets are eerily void of people. This gives this image of a very ordinary and recognizable place an overwhelming sense of mystery and power. With the foreground filled with a gray expanse of concrete street and sidewalk, and long streaks of raking shadow cast by building upon building reflected in empty, standardized windows, you realize you are in the real world but a stranger world than you imagined.

Earlier works, such as “Neighborhood by the Ocean” and “Evening in Miraflores” were painted during time Rouphail and Merrill (the two are a couple) spent in Lima, Peru, in 2011.

In “Evening in Miraflores,” a large billboard silhouette of the Marlboro Man is set against a sea of monotonous apartment buildings, suggesting a fabricated romance that pops in and around facades in many of the city paintings. They are fantasies enveloped in further fantasy.

“Walking around Lima, one can feel that he or she is experiencing a sort of cultural collision or synthesis,” Rouphail says. “I'm still trying to find a poignant way to talk about my experience there and the subsequent paintings that I have produced.”

In a way, the congregation of distinct images from both artists' bodies of work suggest this feeling of cultural collision in a similar manner. Each painting, though thematically and technically linked to one another, seems autonomous; each individual painting speaks only to itself.

Merrill's “Exit” series continues this trend of autonomy and isolation. By appropriating photos taken of skydivers exiting aircraft and omitting all human subjects, the “Exit” paintings, at first glance, mislead the viewer, suggesting that the planes are crashing toward the ground.

Only on closer inspection of the images does the viewer realize the absence of a horizon line and open or absent aircraft doors. These suggest, in fact, that the perspective is of the contrary: It is the viewer who is falling.

The cropping of the image and omission of text or detailing on the planes' extremities, compounded with the lack of any real physical reference (no horizon line), accentuate a sense of vertigo and enclosure.

It is only in the two “My Lead Balloon” paintings, where another plane, submerged in water, is presented fully within the boundaries of the image, that the landscape has been restored. Vertigo is now replaced by symmetry and order.

Merrill writes in her statement that these paintings are an attempt to “examine the nature of collective and personal narratives through the appropriation of family photographs.”

“They are perhaps, more specifically, an ode to my father,” Merrill says, “an excellent pilot and a survivor of things both miraculous and devastating.”

This is not realism, but the scenes depicted are intensely real, as if vignettes frozen in time that are eerily void yet full of sensory experience.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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