1-30 November, Tennyson Gallery, Napier
New works from Cinzah Merkens flirt with the commodification of bird images. They are not depictions of birds IRL, they are representations of bird imagery, more boldly: iconography. Hints of gold remind viewers that these images are valuable, not the veneer-thin red-dot variety of value but true, robust, deep-set value. Gold halos in some tell of religious icons: Merkens has canonised these birds, elevating them to Saint Huia, Saint Kereru.
Alongside birds there is a tick list of nature signifiers found in the slipstream of consumption: contemporary craft (from cushions to tote bags), tattoos, t’shirts, the laminated Guide to New Zealand Fish on the wall of the local chippie. Merkens takes the butterfly, the owl, the shell – to which we are so attracted but have diminished to simple logo status – and shows them back to us elevated to idol.
There’s a layer to Merkens’ offering that unabashedly talks of commercial reality. These are works ‘for sale’; the ‘selling’ beginning pre-opening with a promo trailer circulated online (satisfyingly beautiful and a piece of art in its own right). There is no shame in selling artwork. Creative output such as this takes talent, commitment and hours of hard labour and it should be met with reward that includes the artist being able to pay their rent.
Merkens’ principal body of work can be found on public walls, therefore available freely ‘to the People’. His practice includes working collaboratively with other artists, guiding and curating multi-work projects and finding opportunities to adorn urban and industrial space with the signs of nature. He seems an anarchic eco-socialist at soul-level so perhaps he’s playing with us on multiple layers when he invites us inside white-walled gallery space to sell us the jewels of the Great Outdoors.
Merkens has taken the symbols and style for which he is known and bundled them up into a cash-and-carry version. In the doing he has stripped out his signature vibrancy and presented raw purity of form and texture that is considered and disciplined. Unlike his legendary street art works – dotted around the world but with a motherlode in Hawke’s Bay – these predominantly black and white images are boxed-in, each contained within wide white matt and timber-grain frame. Birds living within a context of wood but with linear grids replacing organic chaos. Hints that the depictions have risen to mythological, demi-god standing can be found in the third eye of the ruru and the moth.
There’s a story here too of humankind’s drive to dominate and own nature. Long-gone huia dead due to a desire for adornment; adoration for our natural assets quickly turning to greed and a need to consume. These neatly framed works call us out on that desire, and give us what we want: the beauty, the majesty and the ephemera catalogued and price tagged.
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