Lara Merrett and her family were living in Bali in 2020 when Covid-19 struck. Making the decision to return to Australia rather than stay and risk healthcare issues, Merrett re-located to the New South Wales south coast town of Bendalong, where the family have a home. There she saw the devastating effects of the 2019-20 bushfires on land and community, and became committed to helping in the town’s recovery. A developer application to build multiple dwellings on land the community felt should be preserved as a refuge for wildlife and National Parkpresented a springboard for the town to come together with a common purpose, and the Manyana Matters group was formed. To raise awareness of the group’s message, Merrett asked artist friends to make and send banners for the perimeter fencing around the development site. Their response was enthusiastic and many asked, ‘Can we make it on site?’, prompting an ‘Occupy the Fence’ weekend in July 2020 where a number of artists made the journey and were billeted by locals.
By my side, walking takes its inspiration from Merrett’s daily walks during Covid lockdown. The walks became a way of staying in touch with neighbours and friends from the Bendalong and nearby Manyana communities. The protest campaign also presented an opportunity to engage with those in the community who have had an influence on the area and to see how activism could impact her art practice. She began looking at historical protest sites, at forest protests and protest structures, and became interested in how those who have never protested become involved in campaigns.
Working outdoors and with limited materials, Merrett wondered, ‘Where does my painting practice sit now, if I’m not working in a studio, but I’m working outside…The work is exposed, you are exposed.’ While her work has always addressed the idea of landscape through the power and alchemy of colour, in Bali she was able to explore natural pigments and dyes, undertaking a course at the Ubud-based Threads of Life, a grass-roots organisation supporting communities to practice traditional artistic practices such as weaving and dyeing. Back in Australia she tracked down Joanna Fowles, an artist and designer who works with plant-derived pigments, and Fowles introduced Merrett to Diego Bonetto, cultural practitioner, naturalist and artist. Merrett organised a workshop with the pair, including on plant identification and foraging, dyeing with natural pigments, and even using some of the sourced plants to cook a meal. She says, ‘I wanted to work with and learn from others’.
Another relationship, this time with Australia fashion powerhouse duo Anna Plunkett and Luke Sales of Romance was Born, has seen Merrett collaborate on several projects including an ‘I vote for the trees’ t-shirt, made with artist Tom Polo in the lead up to the 2022 Federal election, and the transformation of her paintings from canvas to cloth as part of the label’s 2022 Fall Collection.
Merrett’s interest in the canvas’s three-dimensional sculptural qualities and potential for transparency saw her take the canvas off the stretcher bars a number of years ago, and, in what seems like a natural progression, she has moved into installation with a work that features a recuperated wood structure made by 2022 Biennale of Sydney participants Cave Urban based on the form of the tree sit—a platform used by protesters to perch high up in the trees. This frame supports a painting made using natural plant dyes sourced from the sombre, subtle and nuanced hues of the natural environment of the south coast. Merrett comments that the only way to see the painting is to sit underneath and look up, mimicking the action of looking up into the tree canopy.
While Merrett only recently began painting outdoors, she has long worked outside the studio. She talks of dragging the canvases around with her: ‘I build up a relationship with them…they are not things that can be made quickly. Sometimes I take them away; I am not bound by the studio and like the idea that you can make things wherever you are…be resourceful…there is a frugality to it.’ She finds this way of working ‘comforting, like a blanket. It can bring you back to the process of making. Not overthinking, not overconsuming …’. There is also satisfaction in ‘not being precious—the canvas is hardy, can be trodden on, walked on, used, there are parts of the studio in the work…accidents happen.’ Her canvases have been draped, hung, scrunched into balls on the floor, looped and cut-out, left out in the rain, creased and puckered.
Indeed, the realisation of Merrett’s ‘residue paintings’, as she calls them, is entirely accidental. Around 2014, she noticed she was more interested in the residue from her art making than the works she was painting on top of the drop cloths. The idea of the accidental is one that she is particularly interested in. Merrett talks of taking her hand out of the work; of the accidental and uncontrollable, and it is evident that this is an important impetus. Certainty about the outcome would deprive her and the work of the twists and turns in their respective journeys. Her process is to return again and again to work over a long period, to assess its progress and intervene intermittently in its life.
A visual depth comes from the layering of colour and diminishing transparency, as well as from the unexpected hues that are born out of the process. Depth is also created through varied painting techniques, through the painted shadows of canvas folds and, sometimes, a detailed patterning in black line that draws the viewer into the colour field, giving the work a three-dimensional quality. Of the patterning, Merrett comments that it is ‘like sewing or tapestry. It vibrates, creates optical illusion and forces you to slow down. It is a kind of meditation. I am trying to enter the work, but in a subtle, non-heroic way.’ These patterned areas feel like organic close-ups, while the swathes of colour seem big picture, we could just as easily be inside a single cell as an entire universe. Despite the fact that many of Merrett’s works are large-scale—she often stitches canvases together—there is the sense that the artist intends viewers to be disoriented by the world they are entering.
This exhibition was produced with the support of Create NSW Funding.