Marisa Merz at the Serpentine Gallery

In tandem with the launch of its sister gallery, The Serpentine Gallery is presenting an exhibition of Marisa Merz’s work, spanning her 50 year career. Although Merz has had solo shows internationally and has participated five times in the Venice Biennale, this is her first solo show by a UK public institution. The Serpentine Gallery’s exhibition is also timely; it is Merz’s show first since being awarded the Gold Lion for Lifetime Achievement at this year’s Venice Biennale.

The exhibition features sculpture, painting and installation, bringing to life Merz’s preoccupation with materials and scale, ranging from the domestic to the industrial. Occupying a space between abstraction and figuration, Merz’s work also has the capacity to invoke a subtle spectrum of contrasts: the ethereal and the physical; the unworldly and the worldly; the organic and the manufactured.

Marisa Merz, Serpentine Gallery

Marisa Merz, Untitled, Undated, Unfired clay on iron tripod, 25 x 17 x 14cm, © Marisa Merz

The only woman associated with the Arte Povera group in Italy from the late 1960’s, Merz was married to her fellow affiliate, Mario. The group, based in Turin, home to the Italian automotive industry, responded to the prevailing culture of industrialism in the North and to a wider context of social unrest in the country. Through their use of low, ‘poor’ or industrial materials, they attempted to break down the ‘dichotomy between art and life,’ as described by Germano Celant, the curator who coined the group’s name. Merz applied her own signature to Arte Povera’s use of non-traditional materials by employing repetitive craft processes such as knitting, sewing and weaving, which were traditionally associated with the feminine and the domestic sphere.

Despite the gallery’s limit on space, the exhibition has attempted to cover a large cross section of Merz’s works, from her Arte Povera days, to her more recent large-scale works on paper. Living Sculpture (1966), a mobile sculpture made of coiled aluminium sheets floats gracefully from the ceiling, its spiral structures appear more like living, organic forms, its metallic carapace at once substantial and fragile. Barely discernible on the heads of this shiny, silver hydra are filmy patches: grease, originating from the time when Merz had the sculpture in her kitchen, a quirk that enhances the personal dimension of her work.

Marisa Merz, Serpentine Gallery

Marisa Merz, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London, © 2013 Luke Hayes

Other early works include the diminutive and delicate Scarpette (Little Shoes) from 1968, made of nylon thread and paraffin, and modelled on the artist’s feet, Coperta a rolled up blanket bound with nylon thread from 1967, and an array of untitled and undated knitted works – triangles, squares, and circular shapes of nylon woven around metallic wire arranged in geometric patterns. Seen close up, they allude to stars, planets and voids; of things of an infinite complexity that belie their simple forms.

Inherent in these works is a playful quality also present in Merz’s unfired, sculpted clay heads. No larger than a football, their inchoate faces take on an array of expressions varying from mute, to expressive, to bewildering, to serene, to simplistic, and invoke sculptural references such from Pre-Columbian and Modernist art. Some are placed on metallic tripods, imbuing them a gravitas and an aura, as though they possess a knowledge that tantalisingly evades the viewer, like those of pagan religious icons.

Marisa Merz, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery

Marisa Merz, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London, © 2013 Luke Hayes

In the central room of the gallery sits one of these heads, enamel white against the dark copper tripod. Its compact size contrasts with the large-scale works on paper on each wall, depicting abstract faces and figures painted in azures, viridian and gold. Here, under the flat cupola of the Serpentine’s sunlight roof window, the head appears like a religious shrine, whilst the intense chromatic hues of the large-scale paintings trace beatific, spiritual figures. One of the paintings has a web of thin red thread stitched across it; another has two large wooden beams placed in front, a pale green oval wax object placed on the end of one beam, endowing the work as a sculpture; a third is made with copper and porcelain. These works exemplify Merz’s on-going curiosity with materials – a curiosity which is still lively in her 80s. They describe, or rather summarise, the enigmatic and dazzling juxtapositions created by the materials and the processes which she employs to create her elliptical works.

Marisa Merz, Serpentine Gallery, London, through 10 November 2013

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by Gowri Balasegaram
in Focus on Europe

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