Notes on Memory and Observation in the Drawings of Gene Merritt

Since his first known drawings completed at a Rock Hill luncheon diner in the early 1990s, Gene Merritt (born 1936 in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S.A.) has periodically developed subtle yet significant variations in his large body of work.   Certainly, consistent graphic line quality, subject matter and the manner in which he symbolizes reoccurring imagery generally distinguish his drawing.  For example, birds appearing in the distant sky of his picture plane continue to be represented as a variation of the letter "m" suggesting a bird's body and wings.  Clouds and distant mountains also assume formal and compositional notations that repeat themselves when they appear.  In like fashion, a few of his celebrity subjects such as his drawing of George Jetson, the popular futuristic cartoon figure from the 1970s, surfaces almost monthly from Merritt's memory as it appeared the month before in his preferred medium of ball-point pen on paper.  And though his cubist-like self-portraits have a visual reference based in memory rather than direct observation, they bear a striking affinity each time they are drawn.

While there are many more reoccurring features in his work than not, Merritt's alterations are often times the more critical components within his work.  The manner in which Merritt signs his drawings has been one of the most visible identifying elements.    Perhaps because of his continued interest in celebrities,  "autograph" is the term Merritt uses to describe his name and descriptive text as it appears on his drawings. Since "Clyde E. Merritt” is the manner in which he signs official documents, his autograph may have little to do with the traditional idea of the artist's signature.   His bracketing; underlining; and inclusion of strategically placed quotation marks and punctuation throughout his autograph and text evoke a sense of the visual as much as a desire to communicate his thinking behind the drawing.

Merritt's first drawings, which he called "cartoons," did not possess his distinctive autograph or text. They were simple line drawings of figures he recalled from comics, motion pictures or early television.   His eventual autograph was partly influenced by his interest in professional business cards and the recognition that his drawings were his livelihood. For Merritt, drawing has more to do with "paper work" and identifying himself as a productive individual rather than art making.   Over the years his autograph has evolved from"Gene's Art's" to "Gene's Art's Inc." and, after his meeting the late Geneviève Roulin and his subsequent exhibition at the Collection de l'Art Brut, to "Gene's Art's Muzeiam's Inc."  In the past year his autograph returned to "Gene's Art's" and now to "Gene's Art's Colections" (sic).

One of the more intriguing shifts in his work was both sudden and rather stark, and deserves preliminary explanation. During the first half of Merritt's artistic career he lived in very difficult circumstances.  To what extent his environment played a role in his work is debatable, but it is important to mention here.  Most of his drawings at that time emerged from very clear and detailed memories of childhood; motion pictures from his youth; reruns of television sitcoms; and the stars of country music and rock and roll. Merritt’s distinctive profile portraits represented his drawings from memory in symbolical and stylistic ways.  Though the frontal perspective was occasionally used in his portraiture, the profile provided the major vehicle to depict many of Merritt's favorite celebrity characters.

Merritt's drawings from this period were typified by his linear segmentation of the face or body that represented his idea of muscular definition.  Merritt suggests that this drawing technique was like assembling a puzzle with lines and forms from his imagination - or to paraphrase the artist, from his head.  His process was very deliberate and time consuming as he carefully went from one section, or puzzle detail of the face, to the next.   Part of the genius of Merritt's process was how fluid his drawings were in their execution while complex in their composition and descriptive line variations.  Geneviève Roulin (1947-2001, former curator at the Collection de l’Art Brut) described them as wonderfully simple.  Her eye was surely tempered by the works that surrounded her in Lausanne.  In that context, perhaps Merritt's work was simple.  At the same time, these drawings "from his head," which had inspired the interest of the Art Brut world, would be temporarily replaced by an even simpler form.

In the late 1990s Merritt had the good fortune to be one of the first residents in a newly constructed transitional housing program called Pilgrim's Inn.  The care and kindness that Merritt received since moving to his furnished apartment marked a positive shift in his life.  Here again, to what extent the new environment influenced his work can be argued.  Yet with a new postal address, Merritt began receiving free weekly entertainment magazines in the mail.  Distributed as advertisements for American television, the publications were illustrated with photographic images of personalities from popular culture, Merritt's preferred subject matter.  In an effort to "rest his brain" from the exhausting work of creating detailed drawings from his imaginative memory, Merritt began to produce drawings by using the magazine images as models. 

Though his work today is an amalgam of so many of his drawing variations, the specific period in question marked a distinct turn.  While clearly looking at the photographic imagery as observational models for his drawing, Merritt's work lost the puzzle-like intricacy of line and composition.  It was replaced by singular contour lines that defined the forms almost like a coloring book.  His point of view represented the perspective illustrated in the magazine image and, in a sense, forfeited the symbolic or abstract quality found in his earlier work.  And though the photographic images were reproduced only in back and white, Merritt used color pencil within the lined forms of his drawings. His images of female celebrities were especially intriguing as he used color almost like make-up on the lips and around the eyes of his subject matter.   It is antidotal, if not informative to note that for years Merritt had bought inexpensive cosmetics including lipstick, eyeliner and figure nail polish as gifts for women he admired.   For sure, Merritt had also used women's fashion magazines with full-color images as references.  But here, he transformed what he observed in black and white to drawings unlike any he had produced before.  The psychological edge that held his works of memory together had given way to an economy of rendering that illustrated a new facet in Merritt’s vocabulary.  An overall quality of design and Merritt’s desire to extend his voice in a new direction help define these drawings as a significant series in Merritt's career of paper work. 

Tom Stanley, 2005, Musée de la Création Franche, Bègles, France.