Texas-based artist Leigh Merrill, whose exhibit “Concrete Ocean” is on display at Old Dominion University, expertly blends photographic reality with her own digitally enhanced visions.
A professor of art at Texas A&M University-Commerce, Merrill makes photographic and video collages that “explore contemporary landscapes and the impact of desire, simulation, and perception on our environments,” as her bio explains.
In “Concrete Ocean,” on view Jan. 12 to Feb. 17 at ODU’s Baron and Ellin Gordon Art Galleries, her still images pingpong between vivid colors and gritty grays, isolated objects and bold mosaics. Viewed together, they create thought-provoking juxtapositions. Walls, awnings, boarded windows, vacant signs, and parking lots serve as building blocks for the pictures.
At first, the depopulated scenes appear to be carefully curated slices of reality. In fact, they depict a world of Merrill’s imagination.
“My photographs are deceptive,” Merrill said, speaking from Dallas where she lives. “I want the labor to be hidden, so there’s a seamless quality. But I’m distorting the source material quite a bit.”
She will tinker with the images for months before they’re done — changing colors, stitching scenes together.
“I’m working more like a painter, building up layers and layers,” Merrill said. “In part, that’s why they take so long. The source material gets radically shifted.”
The bulk of the work in “Concrete Ocean” was completed at the end of 2020 and was largely generated from photos she took in Galveston, Texas, and the Netherlands. A native of New Mexico, Merrill employs a style that often incorporates the unobstructed views and intense light found in the desert Southwest.
She creates arid environments, but the images of “Concrete Ocean” convey a subtle sense that waters might be lapping nearby. The colors — cool blues and sunny pinks and oranges — suggest a beach vibe. Elements like clouds and pennants contribute to that sensation.
Not all but many of the photos she used as raw material were shot near bodies of water, Merrill said. “There are allusions to the ocean, but it’s not seen.”
Grouping a set of images for a show like “Concrete Ocean,” is an intuitive process for the artist. As she combed through a library of her own photos, she found that some fit together in an interesting way.
“I didn’t start thinking about the ocean,” Merrill said. “It started to emerge as a concept when I made the work.”
In a case of serendipity, the concept dovetails with ODU’s Annual Campus Theme, Blue Connections. Through the theme, the university hopes to explore opportunities for the campus community to engage in awareness and support of the ocean’s ecosystems through a variety of disciplines — the arts and design, sciences, business, education, engineering, health, supply chain and others.
While Merrill said she’s been thinking about climate change, she didn’t intend to send an environmental message with “Concrete Ocean.” Instead, she used the scenes as a prism to portray a sense of discovery, loss, and memory.
“I wanted both ambiguity and clarity,” she said, “things that are in opposition, but exist harmoniously in the photographs.”
The ocean serves as an organizing metaphor. “I think of it as a stable force, but one that’s temporal at the same time,” Merrill said.
The public is invited to attend the exhibit’s opening reception 6-8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, at the Gordon Galleries. Guests will have an opportunity to meet the artist and hear her speak about her work.