Experience Mertz's 'TransFORM'

Jan. 30, 2014 @ 10:26 AM

“Don Mertz:  The White Series,” Durham Art Guild, 120 Morris St.,
through Feb. 7 “TransFORM,” Pleiades Gallery, 109 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, through Feb. 16.


It seems there are endless variations for the artist who wants to pursue the color white as the overall theme in a series of paintings. For some years Don Mertz has worked through this challenge and presents some of them in his current show, sponsored by the Durham Art Guild. Because of the London-Heyden exhibition in the main gallery, the Guild has traded spaces with the Durham Arts Council and Mertz’ show is in the upstairs gallery, making the lobby to the theater quite splendid.
The paintings vary in size; all are rectangles which hang both horizontally and vertically. Some have hints of color or bits of text and some have touches of coarse texture, like sand. All have globs of paint applied with trowels, putty knives and artists’ brushes. Although the artist denies any realistic relationships to his canvases they seem to me to be bird’s eye views of the earth. They remind me of our world with its ridges, valleys, peaks and dips covered in ice-age whiteness or, as he insists, they are simply the results of his imagination leading us into his imaginary world. 
Mertz writes that the near absence of color forces him to focus on line, shape and texture.
“There is no angst being resolved; no narrative, no subject, no message in my art.” He is quite clear about his intent, which is just the opposite of what the artists at Pleiades are doing in their new show “TransFORM.” Here they are dealing with the intersections of metamorphoses, the human form, and the impact of technology on the human experience.  Their art has a relationship to the real world and they want the visitor to know what it is.  The back story is as important to the piece as the art itself.
Pleiades Gallery is a one block walk from the Arts Council building to Chapel Hill Street and then a turn at the corner. About three store fronts farther there is the brightly lit gallery filled with art in a variety of media. This month’s show includes all 10 artist members of Pleiades turning their autographic style into something new. Pleiades is an interesting concept; the gallery is owned by Kim Wheaton and Renee Leverty, who invited eight other artists to join them. Everyone has a say in how the gallery runs. Each artist works several days a month as gallery host and all are dedicated to selling the art in this gallery.  In their first year, they have had one invitational and it was a big success.  For now, however, the artists are trying new ideas either with a solo focus, a small group or, in this case, the entire team. They brainstormed and agreed on this theme. Each worked through his or her ideas and, in many cases, the result is quite different from what they do regularly. When I visited the gallery Jena Matzen, a jeweler, was the gallery guide and she told me about everyone else’s work before she talked about her own.
Saba Barnard’s “QR” paintings are the perfect example of the mesh of art and technology. Under each “QR” is a painting which the viewer can access using a QR Reader app, but the paintings have been physically erased and only exist in a digital sense; something new has been created while its core has been forever lost.
Kim Wheaton also uses technology straight on. She has attached a real motherboard to a three-dimensional doll baby and connected them by a simulated umbilical cord. There is not one among us that has not thought at some future date we will all be born with an iPhone embedded in our brain; this is just another iteration of that thought.
Jim Lee is a photographer par excellence and the natural world is his focus. Here he begins with drawings of bionic dragonflies to which he adds salvaged insect wings and then photographs them with straight photography;  no digital manipulation. These meticulously created imaginary bugs are both beautiful and scary, suggesting a world gone crazy.
The three paintings of Sandra Elliott are about friends. They are all nudes, each with a different story.  In one, we look at the woman’s stomach which is rounded but shadowy and are told after trying everything to get pregnant this friend has had to turn to a surrogate mother. Then there is the one where the woman has lost one breast and in the third, the face is blank but there is the suggestion of a halo of hair -- the story here is this friend faced a divorce after 19 years of marriage and is just beginning to get back some of herself. The artist has used her considerable talent to celebrate her friends’ bravery as they face dramatic changes in their lives.
Darius Quarles paints in a style which is part realist, part comic strip technique and part sheer fantasy; in his “Totem Moments” he writes it evolved after numerous changes; perhaps the evolution was part of a stream-of-consciousness session. 
Jim Adams, Renee Leverty and Calvin Brett turn found objects into art. Adams uses shotgun parts, bamboo, sticks and stones; Leverty uses scrap metal along with other bits and pieces; and Brett uses shells, paper cups, bottles, scrap wood. With the trash bin as their source for materials, the variety of ideas is endless.   
Ceramist Emily Cox and jeweler Jena Matzen turn raw material into things of beauty. Cox works with clay and fire, Matzen with stone, copper or gold and fire. In this show Cox has created celadon masks and Matzen jewelry in copper and black jade. They use their intuitive creativity as they mix biology and technology.
   It takes courage to erase a painting and cover it with a technological symbol, but it demonstrates Barnard’s willingness to push herself and her art to another place. Her gallery mates have shown the same determination and as long as they will do that, Pleiades will flourish and visitors will find new things every time they go inside.

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.