A Conversation with Rute Merk

Images courtesy of the artist and Downs & Ross New York
BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 7 II, 2020, Oil on canvas, 311/2 × 231/4 inches

I recently watched Total Recall and the Fifth Element, alike in their uniquely 90s vision of the future – hyper-capitalist, police states, fashion, distant riffs on an electric guitar. Fuzzy holograms, laggy connections on video-phones – there’s something decrepit about them despite efforts to appear futuristic. Rute Merk’s renderings fit into these fictional futures. Merk’s paintings are glitchy visions of a consumerist future, a search engine result for “fashion.” Smudge-faced androgynous models walk a psychedelic runway in Balenciaga, we can’t quite make them out. They’re shoddy memory implants, furnished with product placements. Using analogue tools of oil paint and brushes, the Lithuanian-born artist simulates dated computer techniques in her practice. Inspired by the Dutch genre of Tronies (pre-digital stock characters), and video game sprites, Merk’s characters are like sims, playing out their realities in a virtual space. The space between a person and their image, is where Rute Merk lingers. What details are lost, or gained, when a person shifts from physical to virtual? She’s just completed her collaboration for Balenciaga for SS20, and is now showing the work at Downs & Ross in New York until Sept. 13th. – CM

Given that we’ve moved online so much in recent months, how has the pandemic influenced your work?

Personally, I felt more dispersed, distracted and dependent on social media. But at the same time it allowed me to keep in touch with family and friends. 

Quarantine amplified experiences of hyper-connectivity and isolation, alienation and social-overexposure. Imagery of figures in relation to technology became more apparent in my recent work.

Can you tell me a bit about your painting practice? 

In principle my technique is rather traditional – oil paints, canvas, masking tape. As for effects, I try to assimilate opposite visual registers, say elements of human and machine vision and mark making. This allows me to think about technologized subjectivity.

While being capricious and time consuming oil paint is very versatile. It’s produced of minerals, salts, earths, clays, rusts, shells, roots etc. But it can make-appear abstract emotions and ideas.

It hits me differently when I see a printed image and a painted image which pretends to be printed. Not that painting medium is in itself any superior, but it records and reveals other things – the mental imagery, the nerve system, embodied cognition. 

BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 51 and 61 (detail) 2019
Oil on canvas
61×803/4 inches

Oil on canvas
67×783/4 inches

BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 36, 2019 Oil on canvas
723/4 × 433/4 inches

Why do you distort your subject’s faces? 

When painting an object, a figure, a face it is most important to transport a certain hunch I have about that subject. I try to shape it through gestures and colour. A certain amount of distortion is productive and welcome. If I concentrate too much on photographic semblance, that vision fades away and I’m left with a rigid, mechanical, sweaty reproduction. 

Is there any difference between our real selves and our online selves?

Authentic online self is just as possible as a fake analog one. But surely there is a difference – our real selves are more vulnerable and marked by death.

Do you worry that we live in a simulation?

Videos of dogs and cats give me so much pleasure, that it’s almost worrying. 

Can you explain a bit about your inspiration in Tronies? 

Tronie (face) is an old Dutch portrait painting depicting stock characters, like a beggar, a fool, an old man, a young woman. It is known that these nameless portraits usually had actual sitters posing for them. I looked for traces of this realness while repainting so-called ‘minor characters’ from computer games or digital avatars.

BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 45 2020
Oil on canvas
311/2 × 221/2 inches

Oil on canvas
52 × 41 inches

What do you think is the function of fashion in our new reality?

I guess that despite looming ecological and political crises and pressures, fashion won’t be reduced only to these challenges, and a purely aesthetic element will remain important as well.

Do you think the continued virtualization of our lives serves to bring us together or alienate us?

Well, it’s precisely both. But generally I try to be not technophobic. 

What does the future look like to you? 

The biggest anxiety I have now about the future is the shadow of fascisms. The biggest hope is how young generations grow up with the knowledge of ecological catastrophes and take it for real. Overall I’m afraid there’s more banality in future than usual futuristic enthusiasm would like to accept. 

BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 16, 2019
Oil on canvas
691/2 ×59inches

BALENCIAGA, SS20, Look 7 2019
Oil on canvas
27×321/4 inches