Contemporary photographer Leigh Merrill translates the methods and objectives of the New Topographics and the Picture Generation into digitally manipulated landscapes that feature the southwestern United States. This survey of Merrill’s creative efforts from the last fifteen years focuses on the artist’s distinctive contributions to demonstrate the intrinsic distortions of photography as a medium and photography’s service in advancing skewed desires of place and places.
Leigh Merrill grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and now lives in Dallas, Texas. Both of these landlocked cities, like many others in the landlocked western United States, have been migration destinations since World War II. Residents of these and other western US metropolises have spooled out across the landscape ever since, although roosting in high-rises has gained purchase in recent decades. Demarcations between urban and suburban zones are, as a result, not readily obvious. The middle-class ranch home with a two-car garage and a neighborhood strip mall finds footing just about anywhere in the horizontal sprawl.
Merrill grew up in one of these indefinite neighborhoods, a late 1970s–early ’80s planned subdivision in northeast Albuquerque called Cherry Hills—a decidedly middle-American environment of mostly three-bedroom/two-bathroom ranch houses whose name suits the lower peninsula of Michigan better than the Chihuahuan desert. The exteriors and front yards of these homes strived for wholesome flawlessness and order, and explored only modest flights of front yard fancy. One of Merrill’s early photographic series centered on swimming pools hidden in Cherry Hills’s backyards. Pool 1 (2001) [Image 1], for example, exhibits a triad of folded umbrellas and poolside tables with artificial turf underfoot, sandwiched by an icy blue reflective water slick, an equally blue band of sky, and a wall jutting from the backside of an ersatz adobe house.
Merrill had landed a job as a pool caretaker that afforded her opportunities to travel from backyard to backyard capturing these cool, self-contained aquamarine worlds—edged by deserted patios. Her vision encompassed a sense of place familiar to some. The architectural impetus in the Southwest toward rounded corners and stepped parapets of faux Pueblo (concrete blocks covered with beige stucco) and a landscaping combat between desert realities and temperate desires, expresses a large measure of this place’s sense. In addition to Albuquerque pools, Merrill hones in on the low Sonoran deserts of Phoenix or Tucson, far from the mile-high valley of the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, and captures the almost wholesale abandonment of Pueblo revival architecture for dogged iterations of post–World War II single-story ranch homes. Palm trees rise; bougainvilleas bloom; and expanses of water-wasting lawns surround almost every house, as in House with Rocks (2006). Merrill notes, “I came of age in the Southwestern suburbs, and became sensitized to the aspirational quality of the front yards of our streets. Each street was nuanced with desire, achievement, and personal aesthetics.”1
Merrill has a strong penchant for the resonance of common places. Her images—at least in the photographs emphasized in this essay (which to date represent the largest portion of her opus)—are urban-suburbanscapes that traverse streets fronting interminable warehouses, facades of unremarkable buildings, replicated houses, and generic strip malls. Views are frontal, flat, street-level vistas afforded by a passing car or pedestrian. Though she fixes her gaze on the insistent, redundant order of facades in western cities, her images are inventions rather than a single view captured through a singular lens. She constructs fictions from many hundreds, if not thousands, of separate experiences: captured, inventoried, and then digitally and meticulously constructed anew.
This additive process—with obvious correspondence to painting—gives her considerable latitude to construct new worlds and remind us that photography is yet another medium of fiction. Merrill describes herself in the mold of the New Topographics, of a recent generation descended from some of twentieth-century photography’s household names like Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, or Nicholas Nixon. James Casebere, and perhaps others of the Picture Generation, had an equally strong pull. Casebere’s architectural constructions are particularly pertinent. His meticulously lit and crafted architectural miniatures and subsequent photographs provide momentum to exploit light, structure, and geometry. But more important is the eerie and theatrical character of Casebere’s environments: dollhouse artificiality, clarity, simplification, reduction of values, and the purge of human presence.
The model train character of Casebere’s villages and his interiors of modern buildings possess a cool remove similar to Merrill’s works. Both edge toward fantasy, and both have a disquieting plausibility, just enough to encourage us to reconsider what makes sense of these places. In House with Rocks (2006), for example, Merrill blurs foliage rising above human sight lines and focuses crisply on the built environment of the house and its street, some cars, and the artifice of a grass-carpeted front yard (a definitive trace of migration from a temperate to a desert climate). A few years later in her pictures of San Francisco homes, Merrill flattens the view and demonstrates her increasing skill in piecing together domestic fictions. Sunset Bulbs (2010), for example [Image 2], includes bizarre arabesques and puffs of topiary countering the organic geometry of plausible but digitally built residential facades. Her disturbed symmetry and distinct horizontal registers are resolute photographic engineering. Merrill does not create seamless, invisible transitions from one partial photograph to another, nor hide her recycling of duplicate bits of images within each photo. On the contrary, her constructions belie a sense of humor in the conspicuousness of her imaging technique. That Merrill studied at the University of New Mexico during Patrick Nagatani’s tenure is, I suspect, not of minor consequence. His commitment to bare his systematically crafted set design and photography as theatrical and humorous narrative must have provided a supportive environment for her.
Merrill has absorbed the importance of photography to effectively disrupt facile distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity. Unlike Casebere and Nagatani, however, Merrill reverse-engineers the process. Rather than building three-dimensional sets and photographing them, she builds an inventory of images and recombines them to construct flat, digital stage sets (see Sunset Bulbs). After gathering a warehouse filled with digital building blocks, she constructs her productions. She notes:
My process begins by making thousands of individual photographs, videos, and audio recordings while exploring a city or neighborhood. In the studio, I then digitally assemble these sources to create photographs and videos of imaginary spaces. Some of these composite images have some veracity, but more often they suggest visual hyperbole—an embellished scene circulating around a small detail or object that fascinated me. These composite images function as a metaphor for the ways in which desire is physically constructed in the landscape.2
Merrill’s views are not about the decibels of construction, hovering clouds of exhaust and steam, sweatshops of underpaid workers, interlaced superhighways, barges of debris, endless crowds of people, trash-filled alleyways, or other long-embraced tropes of urban spaces. Merrill’s theatrical scenes are quiet, clean, meticulously organized, tightly composed, not a speck of dust in sight. The buildings are locked in perpetual noontime light. The romance and depth of shadow has been erased. These images, as the artist has suggested, are more about desire than circumstance. Urban hustle is replaced with dreamy inertia. Her images edge toward lifelessness and disaffection. They are pensive, maybe even ideal, synthetic fabrications of bleached perfection.
Merrill makes on-site sound and video recordings. Paralleling her fixed images, she has created a small but robust body of videos. In these works, she manipulates the sense of expectation, the prospect of change or anticipation that time-based media tend to exploit. Still (2013), a seven-and-a half-minute video, loops from one one-story monochromatic building to another, each stretching horizontally across the screen, above a faint band of clouds set against a pale blue sky, and below an asphalt parking lot. Sometimes the clouds move at a snail’s pace, but they never change shape. A few pennants draped near a roof flutter mechanically. The light and shade on a building almost indistinctly change. A pink ribbon, barely perceptible, waves from a doorjamb. A commercial parking light occasionally flashes a millisecond of an icy ray of light. A hum of distant airplanes in the air, the “shhhh” of a passing vehicle, a whine or chirp from a lone bird, a metallic beat of an electronic cricket, short-lived yapping from a dog, mix into Cage-inspired soundscapes. The volume is low and the pace is deliberately unhurried. And Still seems like a festival of pulsating activity compared to some of Merrill’s other videos. Top Cat (2012) fixes on a catfish, shrimp, and gumbo restaurant, singular and mute behind a parking lot littered with discarded drinking cups. Every so often an imagined breeze moves one of the cups. During this one-minute-and-fourteen-second video, the neon “OPEN” sign on the restaurant door flickers three times. A bird chirps. Except for intentionally heretical touches of color, warmth, and restrained movement, the videos (even more so than Merrill’s fixed images) elicit a sense of loneliness and alienation. Her endless environments without exits, nearly spiritual vacuums, are not unlike David Byrnes’s celestial wail in the Talking Heads song “Heaven” (1979): “Heaven is a place/A place where nothing/Nothing ever happens.” But nothing is something. Merrill fixes our gaze, lures us to identify her sparsely spaced tells, challenges our attention to persist, and gets away with providing no beginning and no end, an indefinite existence. Or as Byrne sings, “It’s hard to imagine/That nothing at all/Could be so exciting/Could be this much fun.”
Merrill’s exaggerations levy disbelief. Skepticism is not immediate; it takes a bit of looking until little things begin to gnaw at one’s expectations. The effect is somewhat like trying to find a place to sit on your aging aunt’s plastic-encased furniture. Merrill’s works also call up the manicured air of Mannerist painting—for example, the figurative work of the sixteenth-century artist Parmigianino. Disruptions of a rational three-dimensional space, elongations of figures, and unexpected juxtapositions of foreground, middle ground, and background fabricate irritable illusions. The images are disquieting and self-consciously distorted.
Merrill’s idled, pastel-infused, shallow constructions follow a pictorial path opposite to Parmigianino. In a Mannerist spirit, she painstakingly crafts dreams approximating American late-twentieth-century middle-class understandings and aspirations. Merrill does not try to trick us into mistaking her dreams as something tangible in the world we encounter. She does not hide the applications of her digital inventories in her pictures. Her tells are readily apparent: repeated doorways, windows, sections of walls, cracks, and stains in the asphalt. The clouds move first left, then right, never changing shape. There is no deceit. Her “tells” are not subterfuge to gain our confidence, but deliberately encourage a longer look. We linger, advancing the crawl of the images a little bit deeper into our consciousness. Her sense of time suspends belief. In her words, “These composite images function as a metaphor to the ways in which desire and control is physically constructed in the landscape.”3
Centro Joyero (2011) [Image 3] is part of an informal series that Merrill refers to as Into the Sunset. These images have a distinctly Western American character but not “Western” in the cowboy-wilderness-spectacular sunset sense. Rather, the images are idealized and romanticized links to mythic cultural strains of something “Western American”—for example, a billboard for an SUV parked in a dense mountain forest, pop notions of feminine beauty reflected in a pink strip mall that features one-stop shopping for a manicure, quinceañera gear, and jewelry purchases and repairs. Centro Joyero is baroque compared to some of Merrill’s other severe images. The wall rising from a street in Now Open (2014) provides no point of entry. A row of multicolor flags festoons the lower, gray, block portion of the wall inset with two blue panels. The upper wall is a whitewashed stand-in for a cloudless sky. In comparison, Centro Joyero overflows with information and color, and even teases with some rare interior glimpses and suggestions of passage—a rare way out of her images—on either side of the strip mall.
The streets and parking lots and lawns of Merrill’s images have the eerie, unsoiled sparkle clean of rooms in floor wax commercials. She vacuums the flotsam and jetsam of daily urban life: discarded plastic bags, spent vehicles, gravel from potholes, debris encased in storm drains, belches of steam, and automobile exhaust. There are small exceptions: a cup wandering with the help of a breeze, a shopping cart askance, or a leftover traffic cone. These isolated remainders are, of course, devices that soften the severity of her scenes, and return images to that uncertain edge between fact and fiction, between objectivity and subjectivity. In a sense, these anomalies are like a dirty footprint in a 1950s living room where all the furniture is regularly sprayed with Scotchgard: there are no children, no scattered toys, no spilled cups of coffee, and plastic floor runners guide progress from doorway to doorway. The soiled footprint serves as an imperative for order and cleanliness.
In her most recent urbanscapes, Merrill has introduced increasing spatial complexity. In This Place (2015), for example, part of the building is on a diagonal, breaking with her tendency toward flat, two-dimensional spaces constructed from rectangular facades. Merrill digitally turns by sixty degrees the flat facade of a glass door flanked by rows of windows and fronted by a blank white sign, creating a twin building from another angle that juts forward diagonally on the right side of the image. This angled structure crosses over a yellow centerline of a street, a definitive dead end. If there was any question as to how to read this image, Merrill provides directional arrows to point out that these buildings are the same, only different.
Merrill’s attention to urban and suburban landscapes has historical parallels dating at least back to Dutch seventeenth-century landscape painting that, among other things, represented the growth of private land among an increasing number of property owners. In this sense, Merrill’s pictures, whether of houses, strip malls, or warehouses, articulate space and the built environment as a source of exchange value, of capital, and of privatization. The buildings are warehouses (for people or products), commercial ventures, private real estate, places of leisure (the swimming pools), and office buildings. All are conspicuously abandoned, alienated from functionality, only artificially animated, if at all. And while their untarnished quality may not be a critical or negative posture on the artist’s part, her fictions recreate contemporary social and economic relationships.
The artist’s link to Dutch seventeenth-century landscape painting mutates into another stronghold of that period: floral still life. Merrill exploits the delicate and sensuous character of flowers as she arranges artificial and natural plants on a black ground. Like her urbanscapes, these are constructed works, but the ephemeral and emblematic character of flowers serves as an earthy, even sensual, mask for desire. In one work, for example, she stitches together blue, white, and gray roses and arranges them as Molecular Structure Delphinidin (2009) [Image 4], the plant pigment that gives Delphiniums their blue color. And in another image, Water Rose (2009), petals of a single pink-tipped white rose are sprinkled delicately with drops of water, a suggestive reversal for the highly prized fragrant water. In a compositional reversal, Merrill fills from edge to edge other pictures with interminably green, over-saturated walls of houseplants, lawn weeds, trimmed hedges, and more. Lawn (2016) [Image 5], as one example, is very unlike the airy pastels of her built environments or the aforementioned flowers suspended in black space. It is like a map from Google Earth jam-packed with thousands of little plants, photographed piecemeal over the spring months as they filled the artist’s front yard. The composite image treads on visual suffocation. Like a tropical rain forest, her constructed scenes of overloaded plant life suspend viewers above a small sector of a seemingly endless expanse. This bird’s-eye view of infinite triviality offers a sense of omnipotence, yet its unchecked excess is disquieting and anarchistic.
All of these quiet, clean and green, and scary and lonely places are “mannered,” a term Merrill uses to describe her work. The images exaggerate and seek an edge between reasonable expectation and unreasonableness. Merrill feeds and simultaneously thwarts our appetites for order, beauty, and accomplishment. She pushes her compositions past believability, ultimately forcing us not just to come to grips with the artificiality that a camera brings to imaging, but to acknowledge and observe our expectations, ideals, or desires for an image, for a space, and for a place. Through this process we gain insight into our own desires as well as how we shape our world, real or imagined, to satisfy them.