In the hierarchy of genres taught in art history class, desert landscapes would be low on the list. But they positively rule compared to the lowly still life. Fortunately, the lowest-rated form has a new champion in Eric Merrell. The Pasadena artist has a style and intensity that attracts followers for whatever he’s doing, whether it’s painting Joshua Trees at midnight or a potted Euphorbia in his own backyard.
Merrell grew up in Gilroy, California, where his parents still live. After earning an BFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he went on to paint California landscapes and to study the early artists of the California Art Club. He discovered a yearning for the deserts, and can often be found camping, painting and wandering in Snow Creek or Borrego, just like the original desert rats.
He was initiated to California fruits and vegetables–the building blocks of many of his still lifes–by his grandfather and his mother, who has a greenhouse full of cacti and calls her plants by their Latin names. His parents’ backyard hachiya persimmon, in particular, left an imprint on the artist.
Though he’s best known for his distinctive landscapes, he recently said: “If I only painted still life, I’d be happy.” In this Q&A, the respected California painter talks about specific paintings and why he loves the maligned still life.
–Have you painted still lifes throughout your career or is it a recent interest?
I started painting still life (as well as landscape) very early, first in acrylic, colored pencils, and watercolor in grade school and then oils by high school. I’ve always found still life a great way to study nearly everything about painting for the least cost. Oranges are cheap, or free if you can find someone with a tree in Southern California. It’s the artist’s job to make it exciting.
–For those of us who like to look at mountains and dunes and easily appreciate landscapes, how can we make the leap to the same natural appreciation of still lifes?
As far as appreciation of still life, I think Andrew Wyeth had good insight into that: “Let’s be sensible about this. I put a lot of things into my work which are very personal. So how can the public feel these things? I think that most people get to my work through the back door. They’re attracted by the realism and they sense the emotion and abstraction – and eventually, I hope, they get their own powerful emotion.”
So people are going to get interested in a work of art for personal reasons of their own – they recognize a location in a landscape, a still life contains something they relate to. But then, maybe you move on to what inspired the artist. Why did they paint something? There are multiple levels for appreciation, you just have to find your starting point. This has been something of an ongoing learning experience for me coming from the artist side, because it’s important to get an idea of what other people see and understand. The best art is a communication between the art and the viewer, it can’t be a one-sided thing, so I have to try and stand in their shoes and see what they’re seeing too.
—Why has still life been unappreciated in the past, and why is it so hard for us moderns to appreciate the genre?
Still life and landscape tend to be pretty cliché, even today when representational art has regained some popularity. There was an article just over a year ago in The Nation called Is Serious Landscape Painting Still Possible?
A lot of contemporary still life revisits themes from art history – nature morte, with its obvious references to death and mortality; or the ‘bountiful harvest’ idea, the table overflowing with fruits and vegetables. The museums are chock full of this kind of work, so we’re tired of seeing it, but I also don’t think it speaks to our times. I don’t think people today can relate to the visuals. Too, these motifs are done in the same manner they were done two hundred years ago or more – same limited color palette, same academic finish. There are contemporary still life painters out there painting new things, but I think the term ‘still life’ is so branded it directs our thoughts towards the brown paintings in the museums.
One quote that has always stuck with me was written by Paul Cézanne in a 1905 letter to Emile Bernard: “We must not be satisfied with retaining the beautiful formulas of our illustrious predecessors. Let us go forth to study beautiful nature, let us try to free our minds from them, let us strive to express ourselves according to our personal temperaments.” To me, this doesn’t say that we need to turn art on its head and start painting like Picasso or stacking bricks in a gallery corner. It says that we need to find out what makes us individual, what makes us unique, and let that drive our art. Sadly, I think much of today’s painting is done with potential sales in mind. That is, a certain subject, approach, or new idea might be avoided because it isn’t considered ‘salable’ (by the artist, gallery, etc.). The only mitigating force should be if it inspires the artist.
Another insight from Cézanne: “To my mind one should not substitute oneself for the past, one has merely to add a new link.”
—The traditional categories for still life include flora, food, fauna, house, home and death–or time passing and change. You’ve touched on the “time passing” theme with your persimmon paintings. Any thoughts on the death-impermanence categories?
I suppose a good portion of my work deals with the idea of impermanence, that we only have so much time to do something in life. Landscapes, especially of the desert, could also fall into that category. I suppose it’s the play of contrasts, which good art has – life/death, warm/cool, soft/sharp, light/dark, whatever gives it that tension.
Impermanence along with a handful of other paintings are inspired by Dia de Los Muertos. My father-in-law often creates an altar at Olvera Plaza during that time of year, and when visiting the many altars around the plaza I’m always struck by the mix of somber yet celebratory mood that accompanies them. It’s a very beautiful celebration, and the bright colors (starting with the marigolds and papel picado) just makes it that much more exciting for me as a painter.
–You are hearkening back to European influences, Cezanne and Klimt. Are there stand-out historical still lifes that inspire you?
Cézanne and Klimt both fascinated me as an art student, but if you had asked me then I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why. Now I know that it’s because they are showing us their own unique view of the world, and that was exciting. They’re still working in the broad realm of ‘representational’ art, but they’ve internalized their experiences and re-presented reality in a way that shows us something new. You can recognize Klimt from across a room. Contrast that to the more highly ‘finished’ work by Gerome or David – I was impressed at the skill, but not excited by the work. It didn’t move me. The last two years I have been delving wholeheartedly back into Cézanne especially, and regaining a new appreciation of Bonnard with new eyes. Picasso claimed Cézanne was the father of modern art and so posthumously the latter was appropriated as an icon for non-representational art in the 20th century, but I think Cézanne actually has a lot to offer to the representational art world.
I get bored very quickly looking at something I’ve seen before that lacks that tension, whether its a landscape, still life, or a canvas painted flat white. So I try to paint things that excite me, whether it’s a different take on an old idea, or maybe building on one. My paintings of nocturnes is one area like that. It’s not a new subject, artists have been painting nocturnes for a long time, but because of limited technology, artists have had a hard time actually painting outside in the moonlight. So you see many artists painting nocturnes – beautiful of course – but painting a lot from memory, which starts to include too many details. If you stand in the moonlight and look at an oak tree or a Joshua tree, you can’t see all the leaves, but you can see different masses of color with different edge qualities. With small portable LED lights, I can paint on location and observe moonlight, and be confident that when I bring a sketch back indoors it will look pretty close to what I was seeing.
Another quote that has stuck with me over the years is from Eugene Delacroix: “What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.”
What excites me about Delacroix’s quote is that it gives validity to what I want to do. Validation is something that we all seek, but artists too seek it, whether in gallery representation, sales, awards, likes on Facebook and Instagram, or otherwise. Delacroix and Cezanne help me to challenge myself, to dig for something meaningful and different while still working in a representational approach. Cezanne took Delacroix’s quote (probably not literally, but at least chronologically as Delacroix was older) and took still life to new heights. He changed how we see apples. Van Gogh did the same with his sunflowers or irises.
–You start with ideas behind each still life that help you get into the piece. Can you talk about those ideas, regarding specific paintings?
I usually need a starting point in a painting for myself to get excited. I don’t just plop down anywhere and start painting. For Thrive, it was the challenge of painting the highly reflective yellow pot in shadow – yellow being a warm color while shadows will generally be cool (on sunny days).
I also liked the contrasts of texture between the smooth glaze on the pot, the sharp spines of the Euphorbia, and the old style chain link fence in the background. I don’t think it was until after the painting was finished that I made the connection between the potted Euphorbia being essentially fenced in – the only open area is off to the left of the canvas, as evidenced by the shadow of the fence post coming in from the left and down. This was during a period of time when my wife and I were living in a tiny (400+/- square feet) apartment in Eagle Rock nicknamed the Doll House. We made it work, but it was pretty cramped for about a year. I realized that the cramped feeling was evident in my painting.
No Hint of a Breeze came about because I wanted to paint heat. So I painted it outdoors in the middle of summer. The warm colors contribute to the feeling of hot (there aren’t too many cool colors); but also, the enamelware basin (which I bought at a thrift store in Yucca Valley) is empty.
The basin is a nod to Charles Hawthorne, a great artist and colorist who taught for years in Provincetown, MA. One lesson he devised for his students was to fill a white enamelware basin with water and float thin slices of lemon on the surface and paint it outside (my teacher Daniel W. Pinkham also gave me this challenge). It’s a lesson in painting what you see, not what you know: the thin slices cast shadows on the bottom of the pan, but they appear Cadmium Yellow. Try to make that work in a painting! Anyhow, the lack of water in the basin accompanied by a pretty parched-looking cactus to my mind helped convey the sense of heat.
Knowing From Where You Came is kind of a portrait of my grandfather. He was quite a gardener, growing multiple citrus, berries, and other fruit trees, and had a greenhouse in which he grew cacti. These interests passed from him to my mother and then to me. This was painted maybe 10 years ago, but to this day I have a number of fruit trees and quite a collection of cacti.
Your Light is about masculinity and femininity. The cactus (also earth/soil) is an obvious stand-in for the male side while the abalone shell (ocean/water) represents the female. It’s not a versus, but complimentary – the light from the abalone shell is illuminating the darker shadows of the pot. This was also painted during our time at the Doll House.
Others can be pretty straightforward. On a trip to the New Orleans Museum of Art last year, I saw a small painting of peaches by Edouard Manet. It was such a beautiful piece that I wanted to paint peaches myself – so I went home and eventually painted a piece called Homage to Manet. It’s a still life with peaches, but outdoors in a bowl, in full sun. Lots of fun, bright colors. I did another painting of ripe persimmons on an orange cloth in full sun last fall. The effect of looking at it nearly gives one an afterimage when you look away from it.
–You have the best titles. Do you think of them beforehand (so they guide the painting) or do they come after?
I spend a lot of time on the titles for all of my work. Sometimes I’ll get a quick flash of inspiration about it while painting and will write it down, but often I’ll sit with the painting after it’s done and try to compose just the right title. For me, rather than just reiterating what could be easily learned merely by looking at the painting (“Chair with Oranges” or something like that), titles are another way to give the viewer some sense of what I was after. The best title helps suggest the right mood.
–Tell us about those backyard persimmon trees. They seem to be central to your still life quest.
Strangely yes, persimmons have been in my life for a long time. My mom has a Hachiya persimmon in their yard, so we always baked persimmon cookies and the like growing up. Many of the places I’ve lived at in Southern California have also had persimmon trees in the yard, including the house where we now live, which has both the Hachiya and Fuyu varieties (the former is much better suited towards baking, while the latter is sweeter and crunchier like an apple when ripe). They’re fun to paint because of their intense color when they ripen – both the fruit and leaves. Our Fuyu tree turns absolutely crimson, like a Cadmium Red, when it starts to get cold; the Hachiya leaves become an intense cadmium orange, some shifting yellow green.
For a number of years I lived with Ramona [Eric’s wife, Ramona Rosales–ed.] at her grandmother’s place in South San Gabriel, which had both types of persimmon as well as numerous other fruit trees. Ramona’s dad has recalled persimmon trees from growing up in East L.A. too. We bought our house in Pasadena from an elderly Japanese woman and she had many mature fruit trees, including both persimmons.
–Are there elements of the desert (cactus, rocks, skulls) that especially lend themselves to a still life approach?
Flowers are a good subject to paint – like Sergei Bongart said, he didn’t paint flowers because he liked flowers, but because they were an excuse to use strong color. But flowers wilt and die pretty easily, and can also veer into the realm of saccharine very easily (think of paintings in thrift stores).
Cacti on the other hand are the perfect model, hardly moving and able to withstand intense heat and cold. Though tequila can’t withstand direct sun too long. I painted some sotol once, which is similar to tequila, in a bottle in the sun. It wasn’t very good after.
See Eric Merrell’s website for upcoming workshops and information, as well as a link to Alec Ernest’s film of Eric painting Joshua Tree by night: