Reading the accompanying leaflet for Annalisa Merrilees’ exhibition and looking at the works, it’s striking to learn that she has attempted as far as possible to complete each of them in a single sitting. For instance, as Upright Gallery’s owner Ian Farmer explains, the canvas 800 2019 took a single day (all the works’ names are prefixed following the number of squares in their underlying grid patterns) – quite an achievement given its size, at a glance 2m tall. One assumes the exacting preparatory process of laying and cutting the masking tape alone must have taken up an enormous proportion of the time, and this self-imposed discipline, both in the work-process and the visual result, is the key to understanding what’s at the heart of this exhibition by the Edinburgh-based Gray’s School of Art graduate.
Each painting is the result of a process beginning with, as the leaflet describes it, ‘a set of routines that must be followed and completed in as close to one sitting as possible’, the intention being to give the viewer an idea of Merrilees’ frame of mind (hence the exhibition title), as she undertakes and completes the mentally-rigorous and intensive process. Using random number generation to allocate colours to a base grid allows her painting to ‘begin its life illogically’ as she puts it, and she then sets about responding to this preliminary set of options, with an intuition that’s evident in the harmonious interplay of colours and textures, reminiscent of Bauhaus-era design, such as the textiles of Anni Albers, Piet Mondrian’s canvases, de Stijl or even modernist architecture.
This pin-sharp detail is evident on close examination of this resulting abstract canvas, adorning the gallery’s west wall, with some of the lines a mere 3mm wide, atop a grid of coloured squares. Some squares have a more random texture, offsetting their flat-coloured neighbours, and all is marshalled into a level square-grid: the tactile effect of foreground-on-background is noticeable, and the illusion of secondary colours ghosting out of the patterns warrants repeated looks.
Another large canvas faces the viewer from below the mezzanine as s/he enters the gallery (all the works were purposed for this show): 4003 2019 demonstrates similar precision but this time with lines of paint from a piping-bag, which on its vertical travel betrays occasional ‘stutters’ in transmission to canvas, resulting in a random break of line. Recharging the bag results in a slightly more assertive line, and this change-of-gear is apparent as the eye travels across the canvas (admittedly not very apparent in my photos, subject as they are to the resolution restrictions for web delivery).
In other large canvases such as 2562 2019 and 256 2019, thickly-applied or random free-form paint-mounds or marks are juxtaposed with flat colour, again in a grid, but further textural variety is evident in the smaller pieces as you make your way round the exhibition: for instance 81 2019, hung at 45 degrees, reveals a floral-spread texture viewed close-up, which isn’t immediately apparent. The gallery comprises two small rooms, but the pieces are numerous without being cramped.
Some pieces form a duologue, such as 11 and 12 2019, one on top of the other, with the hand-rendered mixture of the random and the deliberate supplying the complexity to engage the viewer. Gloss and matt textures also contribute to a sense of depth – none of the work can be called flat.
Even pieces such as 7680 2019, which with its cracking pattern at first glance appears not to be grid-dominated, in detail has tiny dots – 7,680 of them – appearing to perforate the flaking green shell-like covering, in a pin-board grid – an illustration of perfect geometry setting-off a naturalistic, imperfect texture. Find Upright Gallery by Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield Links, preferably before this exhibition closes (31st May) to find abstracts from a local artist who is willing to put herself through much to bring these rich and varied abstracts into being.