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Armin Mersmannís "The Veiled Narrative" at the Saint Francis Galleries

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


Photorealistic renderings have been done since the mid sixties, but Armin Mersmann's highly technical drawings turn the somewhat dense photorealistic style, and create attenuated, flickering images which retain the lifelike quality which defines a successful portrait. Fort Wayne is lucky to have a full gallery of examples of Mersmann's works on paper and experiments in assembled painting. "The Veiled Narrative" is a superb exhibition displaying multiple sides of Mersmann's artistic practice, from his ridiculously virtuoso ability to render complex compositions and glass with multiple light sources in his broken light bulb drawings, to his large scale, obsessive compulsive portraits which include thousands of facial hairs and stitches in clothing.

Armin Mersmann was born in Remscheid, Germany and immigrated to America in 1962. The son of Fritz Mersmann, a successful painter in his own right, Armin studied art for a few years in college and then found success as a portrait artists in Chicago, IL. Currently, Mersmann teaches at multiple institutions, including the American Academy of Art. Not only has Mersmann be successful in the world of academia, but he is also one of the premier contemporary portrait artists, and his work has been collected and exhibited extensively. He was also named a Top 100 American Portrait Artist by Artist Magazine in 1990 and 1994.

While Mersmann's work is primarily formal, his work also contains a pertinent symbolic nature. Narratives are constructed through sometimes complex compositions involving human artifacts. Mersmann's artist statement explains, "I am reacting to man's preoccupation with cheating death and his creating representative objects...in an attempt to achieve this immortality." In doing so, Mersmann's imagery is based in the art historical genres of portraiture and still life. Especially in the latter work, Mersmann plays with modern ideas of vanitas with busted light bulbs taking the place of rotting food, skulls, and fading flowers in the old Dutch bourgeois oil paintings of Pieter Claesz.

"Shadow Play" is a great example of these drawings. In "Shadow Play", Mersmann makes the rendering of multiple overlapping shards of glass look effortless as he depicts a pile of broken light bulbs. Mersmann's choice of light bulbs is interesting, and creates pop comparisons to a universal symbol for unique ideas, light, and modern living.
The composition of the image is made dramatic through the placement of the pile of bulbs near the top of the image, with a single mostly intact bulb "dangling" in the lower center. The large white space at the bottom making the image very heavy. The soft and somber shadows intersect all of the shards of glass and scrape across the paper alluding to the surface that the glass is scattered upon. These compositional elements and the physical dimensions of the drawing (rather large format for such detail) propel the impact of the piece into a depiction of a pile of trash and a cemetery simultaneously.

While Mersmann's still life compositions are technically perfect, they pale in comparison to his large scale portraits. The dichotomy of rationality/irrationality exuded by these images is by far most important feature of these pieces. The eye can barely focus on the amount of information Mersmann compresses into each inch of the paper, representing each thread in a cable knit sweater, the grain of a cotton shirt, or whispering hairs escaping the face of one of his models.

"Larry Butcher", a very dark, old master styled portrait of a man was the smallest portrait displayed in "The Veiled Narrative". Because of the strong shadows and dramatic lighting, the image becomes more of a formal display of Mersmann's mastery over the rendering of hair and cloth. "Larry Butcher" is a bearded man with long, flowing hair. Mersmann's ability to represent hair is so attuned to detail that the image actually depicts the course beard hairs versus the softer hair from his head. As the long flowing hair rests on the figure's shoulder it nearly becomes abstract and has a fluid feeling. This then draws the eye to the intensely fine details of the figures black shirt, where each grain in the weave is highlighted just enough to show texture.

This irrational, obsessive compulsive attention to detail is echoed in "The Waking Edge", and image of a young woman looking at the viewer wearing a loosely woven blouse or sweater, with each thread discerned with texture and dimension. While this image is less visually impressive from a technical standpoint, it highlights Mersmann's ability in portraiture to represent likeness, personality, and mood. "Occasional Angel," a somewhat fantastical image, depicts a weathered, heavily bearded, tattooed angel grasping his own wing. Again, the contrasting texture of the facial hair makes it look even more wiry, and the individual filaments in the weathered wings defy total comprehension. In "Blues For Mama", Mersmann creates an elegiac portrait to his mother who has passed, and references her china paintings in the background patterns. Her hair, patterned garment, and the representation of the magnification from her glasses are all amazing. Through all of these portraits, Mersmann revels in his own ability to render any and everything.

In conjunction with the exhibition "The Veiled Narrative", Armin Mersmann was also highlighted in the Closer Look Lecture Series at the School of Creative Arts at the University of Saint Francis. This exhibition and programming are a great addition to Fort Wayne's art scene and need to be recognized as such. The exhibition schedule at SOCA has been steadying improving in not only quality of exhibited works, but also in the curation of such exhibitions.

Mersmannís Contemporary Drawings exhibit will be on display from January 23 through February 28, 2010 at the John P. Weatherhead Gallery in the Mimi and Ian Rolland Art and Visual Communication Center on Leesburg Road. For more information, call 260-399-7700, ext. 8001 or visit the website at www.sf.edu/art.

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