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Tanya Merrill Interview, Harper's Bazaar Korea

August Issue, 2023

Tanya Merrill Interview, Harper's Bazaar Korea, August Issue, 2023

Tanya Merrill Interview, Harper's Bazaar Korea, August Issue, 2023

Tanya Merrill Interview, Harper's Bazaar Korea, August Issue, 2023

Tanya Merrill Interview, Harper's Bazaar Korea, August Issue, 2023

Harper's Bazaar: Your work I’ve encountered at Art Basel Parcours was one of the most impressive artworks from this art fair. Where did you get your inspiration and what topics have you worked on? Please tell me more about history of the artwork.  


TANYA MERRILL: The first painting when you walked into the museum over the doorway was Helene Pregnant, Painting. This is a fictional portrait and somewhat of an homage to Finish artist Helene Schjerfbeck. Similar to my painting of Lotte Laserstein, I am musing on women artists whose work I admire and imagining them pregnant while working and finding power in depicting them as such. I’m interested in how gender and sexuality has been historically represented in nature and how that can relate to our current moment ecologically and socially.   The flowers at the bottom of the canvas are Summer Pheasant’s Eye— classified as vulnerable in Switzerland due to intensive farming and the use of herbicides. There are shadows of birds on the landscape, which connects this work to the other paintings in the stairwell of the museum. 


With Crows over Italian landscape I see these birds as a high flying witness to humans manipulation of the land and ecology. This particular landscape over which the crows are flying is a nod to a Balthus painting from 1951. This work of his is pastoral and picturesque. Considering that work today there is some irony in the fact that it was made just following World War II, when the application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides entered the world market, changing the landscape forever. Across the stairway we hung the painting Birds overhead. I enjoyed pairing these paintings together as you have in one painting a woman on the ground with the shadows of the birds around her and she is looking up to the sky, and then across the stairwell is the opposite perspective of the birds looking down to earth.  I see the shadows of the birds flying overhead like a memory of their presence—Europe has lost almost a fifth of its birds since 1980 to habitat loss, 3 billion birds lost in North America.  

With Goya’s Ass I am referencing Goya’s Los Caprichos series, which commented on the society and politics of his time— looking at this work today I see environmental commentary that he could not have anticipated. I liked the idea of making it a repentance of sorts. There is humility and vulnerability in the man’s nudity, struggling under the weight of this mission he is on, which is usually the other way around. Who is carrying who now? 



It was presented as a site-specific artwork at the Natural History Museum. What was the main thing you’ve focused when communicating with the curator?  


I wanted to interact with the exhibitions in the Natural History Museum and with the architecture of the space.  This was an opportunity to have my work surrounded by the source material I usually reference, so the context of the site was exciting for me. It was also an opportunity to play with the architecture of the building— for example we hung the painting Birds overhead next to a window hinged off the bottom corner of a museum plaque, the women in the painting is in motion, almost falling, like the entire work slipped from the center of the plaque. In this work she is also blocking the sun from her eyes looking up to the sky, and actual sun from the window would stream across the work every day in the afternoon, replicating what’s happening in the painting. The curator, Samuel Leuenberger, also had the great idea to show a work in the annex of the museum which is usually closed to the public. So, my project started in the lobby, traveled up the staircase and ended at the top in the annex, continuing the Art Parcours theme of following a trail and finding work in unexpected locations.  



From ancient poets Sappho to Dolly, you have painted myths and art history, symbols and motifs of modern pop culture. How did you think the place Natural History Museum had a connection with your work?  


I use these diverse references to shed light on our current moment in time, specific to this work was my concern for the natural world and the human impact on the environment.  The Natural History Museum was the perfect context to engage with these questions.  



Your work is cartoonish and sometimes impressionistic, with loose, relaxed gestures. Where do you think these characteristics come from? 


I approach a painting like I am making a drawing, I want it to be immediate and not overly labored.  I’ve always enjoyed looking at artist sketchbooks or drawings where you can see the thought process of marks made and taken away. There is a visual path of how the image was made. I love that freedom that sketching allows and apply the same method to making paintings. 


What position does humor have in your work? How important it is?  


I think humor is a great way to talk about things that might otherwise feel too heavy and didactic. It can be an entry point to an interesting conversation. And on a basic level humor is enjoyable, so it’s an alluring state to be in when making and looking at an artwork.  



When do you finally feel your artwork is finished?  


When I begin a painting I have an image in my mind that I am working towards and I am striving with every decision I make to reach that image. Gregory Amenoff at Columbia would say that a painting is just an accumulation of decisions, and I couldn’t agree more. I try to keep the process immediate and not overworked. For me the urgency dies when you overwork a painting, so I try to keep the process fluid. When there are no decisions left to be made, and the picture on the canvas overpowers the one I envisioned, that’s when I can say it’s done.  



You are a promising young artist. I wonder what does ‘success’ mean to an artist?  


Success is living a life making work. And a life of looking at other people’s artwork both past and contemporary. That is the greatest thrill and invigorator—  going to a show and seeing an artwork that blows me away. Then getting back in the studio feeling connected to a larger conversation about the things I care about.