Active in Los Angeles for several decades, Merion Estes emerged in the 1970s with Pattern Painting, shared its inspiration in feminism, and clearly took heart from the permission it gave the decorative impulse. But Estes’ practice has only skirted Pattern & Decoration per se, choosing instead to balance repetitive form and beautiful detail with a more eccentric, more narratively charged approach to the image. Estes shares her sense of mystery—indeed, mystical sensibility—with fellow painters (and friends) such as Constance Mallinson, Margaret Nielsen, and even Karen Carson. At the same time, in manifesting this doubly compelling work, urgently conceived and seductively realized, the veteran painter seems to be spearheading a recently synthesized tendency that, for lack of a better term, can be called the New Fabulism—telling fables with fabulous forms. Within yards of her show, exhibitions by Gegam Kacherian and Francesca Gabbiani displayed the same superposition of expansive space and highly articulated imagery, the same jarring sense of visual and contextual non sequitur, the same optical indulgence so extreme that it provokes ironic distance even while commanding the eye to search its intricacies for clues to its conceptual thrust.
“Lost Horizons” comprised thirteen identically sized painting-collages on paper, each one as visually dense as the next, motifs jumping between them but, on closer inspection, no two much resembling each other. Some feature glitter, others are matte. Some abound with animal references, others border on the non-objective. Some seemingly quote from Chinese landscape painting, others conjure Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, or even Pop. Some brim with delicately described filigree, others erupt with painterly exuberance. The selection was made from a much larger series, to be sure, but the show’s optical and topical variety was vast. Only the format, Estes’ virtuosic technique, and her overarching sense of visual energy—driven by but not trapped in her cultivation of the decorative—proved consistent. This allowed the viewer to take in the works as leaves from a large book, each one a tale told obliquely, with an ultimately coherent jumble of pictorial devices. We are attuned these days to read landscape painting of any sort as implicit ecological commentary. Sure enough, it turns out that the milky white silhouettes of animals and plants recurring amongst more vividly described flora and fauna represent species threatened with extinction. Here Estes tells fabulistic, poignant, ghost stories.
This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine