Mountains. Trees. Telephone poles. Which of these doesn’t belong?
So much artwork depicts picturesque, undisturbed landscapes. We see no telephone poles, aluminum cans, storage sheds or radio towers. But denying them is to deny our responsibility in putting them there. For artist and environmentalist Rhiannon Mercer, this is a difficult concept. Using what she calls “dark insidiousness,” Mercer portrays the natural world as she sees it in Out Sightseeing, currently on display at Sierra Arts Gallery.
Mercer, 26, says her ideas come while hiking or backpacking.
“In the artwork we studied in school, there was this conscientious effort to pretend that ugly stuff isn’t out there. But there’s not much that’s pristine anymore.”
All the work in Out Sightseeing is melancholy and hopeless yet, ironically, beautiful and interesting. The browns, grays and rusts of the west pervade the work yet are mixed with the generally more unnatural reds, yellows, oranges and oxidized turquoise colors often found in our area as a result of mining. Black lies heavy upon the scene, as if soot has settled there. It feels smeared and dirty, like a heavy rain after a fire.
“I don’t want to hit people over the head with sadness, but that’s how it is. It is sad,” says Mercer. The exhibit’s title is laden with sarcasm. “I go out sightseeing, and this is what I see.”
Using a mixture of paint with charcoal, wood paste, wood glue and sawdust on paper, the process becomes the product. In “Untitled” and “Highway Scene,” mountain backdrops are littered with metal storage sheds. An overturned garbage can and telephone poles stand unabashedly in the foreground. Angry, vigorous paint strokes kick up dust. In “Highway Scene” especially, the tumultuous gray sky appears to drip and ooze.
Mercer’s symbolic style, she explains, is “primarily about making marks upon a surface, much like the marks left by our modern culture that are similarly discernable upon the land, whether as remnants of the past, operations of the present or plottings of the future … Gouging, scratching, scraping and abrasing surface layers of paint and mixed media are used in my attempts to capture a sense of the underlying melancholy, unease and surface-textural abuse I see in (and individually contribute to) the landscape.”
This is apparent in “Public Domain,” which is an impossibly confused mess of paint that juxtaposes nature and pollution. Telephone poles on a hill are the only discernible objects.
“Long Road” and “Afternoon in Isolation” share a common theme. The road to hell is literally paved with good intentions. Lonely, lazy highways headed to unknown destinations can never go far enough to shed their telephone poles and wires.
Mercer, a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno’s art program is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Upon graduation, she will pursue a career that merges art with environmental protection. Mercer’s life in, and love for, the American West is obvious, although the region is not portrayed as idyllic, but with confusion, depression and ultimately, a sense of accountability.
“Images of the unhealthy, barren, burnt and broken landscapes call on my personal struggle to come to terms with my own complicity in the destruction of something I am also determined to preserve."