Lara Merrett

In the lead up to her 2018 Bella Room Commission at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), Lara Merrett chatted to Artist Profile about expanding paining beyond the confines of the canvas and the nurturing, nourishing role of art – something that poetically remedies the increasing dehumanisation and disconnection of our contemporary world.       

When and why did you begin migrating away from traditional canvases in favour of drop sheets?

The drop sheet became a studio staple in 2005 when I started using inks and large amounts of water in my painting practice. I would begin with the canvas on the ground above the layers of drop sheets. After a while I couldn’t ignore the random marks, colours and forms emerging on the sheets below. They had their own intensity and secondary spin off from the works that sat above them. I wasn’t sure how they’d fit into my art practice but I knew there was something in them worth investigating. It was a slow start, however when I finally made the decision to use them they physically and mentally consumed my whole studio working environment. I’ve always used a larger scale, so the drop sheet size was very familiar as it had mapped out my studio floor.

Working with cheaper industrial fabric made me less precious towards the canvas. I wasn’t confined to the economic restrictions of painting; there’s always a tentative moment on the blank canvas of trying to ‘pull it off’. Painting drop sheets is full of endless possibilities. When they’re off the stretched frame they become sculptural forms that can overlap, hang, drape or lie flat on the ground.

These drop sheet paintings were first exhibited in 2014 and hung alongside my paintings in ‘Double think’, an exhibition at Karen Woodbury Gallery in Melbourne.

Your recent works destabilise conventional barriers between a painting and its viewer by forging a physical connection between the two. The once-passive gaze is usurped by an act of engagement. What kinds of ideas are you expressing through this interactive approach?

The audience always brings their own connections to artwork and my work takes this one step closer. Making art and exhibiting has always been a back and forward conversation with the audience. Not only letting people have their own interpretations, but also a physical connection and choice in how they view and interact with the work. I’m used to working in a very open studio with a group of other artists so everything is up for debate and discussion. I’m interested in the work being active, not static. Touch is also something I like exploring; the idea of touching a painting and what that means.

The unknown is also present when working with public participation. My five-day durational installation This is not a love song (2017), at Carriageworks, invited the audience to enter the space and cut out a section from the large revolving paintings. Through this process I’m interested in the many hands that make up the random marks and also the work changing over time from a two dimensional painting to a three dimensional expanded work. I also wanted to explore the exchange that happens when you open the door and invite the audience to engage. I did, however, set the parameters through the hidden wire in the hem of the work so the structure was kept intact. This is not a love song referenced Yoko Ono’s work Cut Piece from 1964, which invited the gallery audience to use the scissors in front of the artist to cut a section of her clothing and take it with them.

What role does colour play in your practice? 

Colour is everything. It’s my experience of the world, my memories, connection to sensuality; an endless language. Studying and travelling in India as part of The Freedman Scholarship I received in early 2001 was very influential in regards to colour. Seeing the vibrant colours used in everyday life was mind blowing. I’ll never forget the metres of pink fluorescent fabric being strung up by the side of a road cutting through the brown, dry, dirt surface.

I often think that using colour must be like composing music. I always wanted to believe I had synthesia. The idea of colour having its own sound makes so much sense. It’s a language I can use on an instinctual ‘gut’ level that exists in a different part of my thinking.

Your Bella Room installation, Paint me in (2018), features three colourful canvases suspended and looped from the roof, encouraging visitors to climb in and lie down inside the hanging paintings. You mentioned that this commission has enabled you toinvestigate new ways of connecting with painting – as a refuge, sanctuary and nurturing place’. What do you hope people will take away from this work?

When I was thinking through all my proposal ideas, this particular idea of climbing into a painting really stuck with me. It felt like a very romantic and poetic idea that a painting could become a physical space in which to be held. I often find my studio is a place that nourishes me and fills me up. My drop sheets already hold me in a way so the loop hammock painting is an extension of this idea. I wanted the visitor to have a similar experience of the one I do in my studio daily; to feel safe, secure, and be filled up from the painted canvas. It’s also a very comfortable private place to be on your own. A break in pace from all the moving around that’s required in a big museum. There is no time limit, which I like. When you look at a painting in a more conventional way it can seem like a task moving from one to the next every thirty seconds or so. I have this memory from my twenties living in Madrid where I would spend hours sitting in front of Goya’s black paintings. I’m not sure if I was looking at them for that long or whether it was simply the act of being with the artwork – this connection and intimacy of tracing all the artists’ micro details and materiality of the work.

What next?!

It’s a really exciting time, thinking about new ways of expanding my practice and new directions to explore. I’m looking forward to being back in the studio with smaller deadlines for Melbourne Art Fair and also a solo exhibition later in the year at Tristian Koenig Gallery in Melbourne. I’m also really open to the collaborative process after my MCA experience, and will hopefully have the opportunity to keep work with people from different disciplines.

Lara Merrett | Paint me in
2018 Jackson Bella Room Commission  
National Centre for Creative Learning (NCCL), Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Opening 23 May

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