Let me put down a marker to start with: Hugh Merrill is a master print maker. His technique and his devotion to the form are, it seems to me, unimpeachable. Much of his work follows a pattern I’m always drawn to as well, the print series or portfolio, in which an artist circles a theme, bringing out variations and reimaginings that finally form an accumulative vision. Artists live in the world, and inevitably they react to stimuli. That could prompt a Jeff Koons to create a body of work that feels as sincere and important as eating marshmallow fluff straight from the jar with a spoon. Or, in Merrill’s case, it could serve as motivation to engage with the world around him in all its mess and complexity, and emerge with vital, deeply felt responses to who we are and who we might be, if we put down the marshmallow fluff. That work can be a result of looking outward and spotting injustice, or looking inward to confront how he and his family have benefited from inequitable systems.
In this sense, he’d no doubt find a kindred spirit in Sue Coe, or Robert Ernst Marx, who’s written that his favorite themes include, “the arrogance of power…the abuse of and by both spouse and child…our own and others’ personal fears and insecurities.” Coe, Marx and Merrill are all approaching matters that defy easy answers. A reasoned, carefully written response can tend to give short shrift to the emotional aspects of highly charged issues. So Coe might turn to agitprop, or Marx to a personal symbolic language. Merrill, it seems to me, moves to make space for these complex, contradictory forces. The result often strikes me as intricate in the interplay of line and shadow, their dramatic collision or apparent tries at avoidance.
Of course, intricacy isn’t only signified by geometric precision. Merrill so often seems intent on reminding the viewer that a tangle is intricate in its way, and that our preference for ease and immediate clarity can mean skirting more fraught, difficult questions. His work from both the Torso and Facts of Fiction series insist on confronting these sorts of complexities. The Torso series was Merrill’s response to The Body in Pain and insights on torture, including “the physiological and physical abuse that prisoners face.” In this case, Merrill “began with a drawing from an old anatomy book of a headless torso and preceded to beat, grind and attack the image transforming it.” Complexity naturally followed. “What frightened me,” Merrill writes, “was that in my ‘abuse’ of the image it became more beautiful.
Three images from Hugh Merrill’s Torso series, via http://www.hughmerrill.com/work/#/etchings/
As for Facts of Fiction, he references Dürer’s Melencolia, and explores, “the finite quality of individual lives and of material.”
L-R: Albrecht Dürer, Melencolia; Hugh Merrill – etching from Facts of Fiction
Dürer image via https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336228
Merrill image via http://www.hughmerrill.com/work/#/etchings/
And now Merrill has created WhiteOut, a zine or pamphlet or chapbook – choose your preferred characterization, it’s a slim, softcover book – in which he confronts his place as part of “a family of privilege.” He doesn’t look for anywhere to hide his family’s history, or to soften the rough edges. He writes, “My family arose from a line that defines white privilege and power, in a place of authority that has twisted the lives of many.” That line does in fact include some figures with real power. Merrill writes of his great-grandfather, who was a Confederate cavalry man under Jeb Stuart’s charge. This great-grandfather set the family line on a prominent path by founding a gold mine and working as a lawyer in Anniston, Alabama. The son who followed (Merrill’s grandfather) was a judge who ran an infamous trial in 1918 Alabama, a trial which “ended with the ‘legal lynching’ of an innocent black soldier, Sergeant Edward Caldwell.” He follows the line on down to the present day, to his cousin, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a man whose work on Voter ID laws aimed at suppressing minority voter participation is a natural extension of the men Hugh Merrill evokes in WhiteOut, including his own father, who “was the head of oils and peanuts for the agriculture department/he wore confederate flag boxer shorts.” The visuals in WhiteOut are collages of historical documents, newspaper stories, family photos and snatches of Merrill’s writing. There’s an inescapable momentum to the book, an accumulative power to the overlapping, startling images and Merrill’s insights, and again, there’s no quiet quarter to escape to. That’s by design, and it’s a highly effective one. It’s also this project that’s driven Merrill’s reading of late:
I am reading all about love: new visions by bell hooks.
I am writing a book of recollections of my childhood titled WhiteOut.
It is very difficult for most white folks to discuss race, their own participation in racism and the racists’ history of their past, family and community. Thebook is meant to tell the full truth about my long time politically powerful family from the State of Alabama. This is not a story of the past, my cousin John Merrill, is the Attorney General of Alabama presently (2018). He crafted voter ID laws to disenfranchise people of color, immigrants and the poor from their ability to vote. You most likely saw him interviewed on national TV; CNN and FOX during the special senate campaign (2017). He is a Trump and Roy Moore supporter but Doug Jones the moderate and sane Democrat thankfully won the vacant senate seat. John Merrill had to go on TV and certify the vote. Over generations my family helped shape the Jim Crow laws in Alabama, convicted the innocent and saved the guilty. They profited from slavery, lynching, racial terror, the prison leasing system and took full advantage of all the other perks that go with wealth, and easy access to the powerful. The details are outlined in an attached document and are the text for the publication Whiteout.
bell hooks’s book is an amazing investigation into my family as a privatized patriarchal nuclear organization cut off from a broader loving community.
It allows me a look into the dysfunctional and mean spirted nature of my childhood and the outcomes in my own life.
Header image via http://www.hughmerrill.com/