Q&A with Resident Artist Drew Merritt
The idea of creating street art passed Drew Merritt by — literally. Raised on a one-road ranch in a small New Mexico town, Merritt admired the large scale graffiti pieces on train cars passing by. He saw what his natural talent in drawing could become. Following the train tracks (with the help of a driver’s license) to the next town over, Merritt and his friends (some fellow artists, others lookouts) took to the streets and the Santa Fe railroad to experiment. Trouble with the local authorities followed, but it would also lead to one of Merritt’s first paid gigs. After several tags got pinned to Merritt’s style after his sketchbooks landed in the wrong hands at school, he had to hire a lawyer to defend him in court — and the same lawyer hired him for some mural work.
Over a decade later, Merritt’s unique path through the art world and endless sense of style remain. From his days of decorating entire train cars, Merritt feels most comfortable working large scale canvases finishing up a 68” x 96” oil on canvas painting for his Red Bull House of Art residency after wrapping a mural in Atlanta earlier in the week.
Like the majority of his work, the canvas is a stunning blend of influence fluidly curated via oil paint. A woman in a silk dress crawls from underneath a pile of bloated trash bags. The highlights in her hair reek of the 1980s yet manage to match the reflection of the plastic bags under a city streetlight at night. Her wardrobe feels like a modern take on a Baroque gown while the brash negative space above represents the best of a bold minimalist approach to background. It’s undeniably contemporary but leaves the viewer unable to pin the painting down in any era or influence. That’s the intention of the artist at play — part of Merritt’s personal quest to create something classic by remixing them with something you’d expect to see in a glossy, high-end fashion magazine.
We spoke with Merritt about his drive to create timeless work; his attraction to anatomy and posture; and how his experience at Red Bull House of Art has influenced his work.
Some would say the best contemporary art borrows from the past. It’s evident that you are heavily influenced by myriad styles of today and centuries ago alike. What attracts you to these different styles and what are the challenges of blending them together?
I have this theory that if you can’t really tell what period a painting is made in, it won’t age as fast. It doesn’t date itself. Like the white t-shirt, it never really goes out of style. You had all these classic rock hits and now people sample them and give it new life. I feel like I’m doing the same thing just in a very visual aspect with a traditional oil paint approach to it. Remix it and change the composition — that’s my starting point. By the time the actual painting starts, there’s already a lot of work put into it trying to capture a lot of different influences. That’s the same sort of thing I’m trying to do. I want longevity.
In your paintings, you’ve used anatomy and posture to help guide the narrative forward. How much of that is your personal narrative and how much is left for the viewer to interpret?
Each piece always has their own meaning to me. What do I want to say? What’s going on in my life? It’s very personal, but I never want to nail it down. Whenever you hear a song — whether it’s about a relationship or party song or whatever — lyrically, they use poetry so you can always loosely relate to it. Like a good movie, it will make you laugh. It will make you cry. There’s humor. There’s all these great aspects to a great story. I always try to keep that in mind when painting.
The residency at Red Bull House of Art is designed to support collaboration among artists. How has working in close proximity with other artists influenced your work?
It’s been really cool to be thrown into a new city, thrown into the same room with two other great artists and watch their processes and their progress. It’s messed with my mind a little bit because I feel like I gotta do better. They’re using so much color and it’s definitely influenced me a bit. It threw me for a loop for a second. I almost went crazy on color, but had to really step back and use color more sparingly and in a more powerful way that works for my style.
By Ryan Patrick Hooper