In the purview of Merion Estes, what was once lost is found again—and given new meaning, relevance and even urgency. Estes is a treasure hunter, a collector of ephemera—items that catch her fancy, because in them, she sees exciting potential, material for reshaping. These stumbled upon quotidian things are really only details or accoutrements of a much larger vision. Flower motifs extrapolated from exotic printed or batik fabric, silk flowers and snippets from reproductions of Chinese landscape paintings, become elements of, and embellishments for, her own deeply symbolic compositions. Passionate about the environment and profoundly concerned about its degradation from human intervention, in her work, Estes harnesses its beauty to convey a nostalgic reverence for earth’s wonders and a cautionary statement about the prospect of impending calamity.
On a foraging and shopping expedition to a store in LA’s Chinatown some years ago, Estes bought the entire stock of out-of-date calendars for their reproductions of Chinese landscape paintings. She tore and cut up the images, and began the process of incorporating the fragments into a new series during a month-long art residency in Santa Fe in the summer of 2007. The series, Lost Horizons, alludes to the 1937 Frank Capra film “Lost Horizon” (adapted from the novel by James Hilton) in which survivors of a plane crash in the Himalayas discover Shangri-La, a seemingly utopian outpost in the Tibetan mountains. The 12 pieces in this exhibition (mixed-media collage and acrylic/mixed media) represent only a fraction of the extensive series Estes pursued from 2007 to 2011. Created on heavy, mostly Arches, paper, these complex layered works are rich with texture and vibrant bursts of color and movement. In them, Estes introduces not just parts of scenes from the Chinese landscapes, which contribute an exotic otherworldliness, but unexpected elements such as confetti-like cut-out paper dots likely rescued from a hole punch—as in Lost Horizons #53 (2011), affixed in lines jettisoned across the surface.
Mounted alone in the Project Room is the powerful large-scale mixed media piece, Cooling Trend, the sole major work on canvas Estes produced during the record hot summer of 2016. Dramatically portraying earth, water and sky, with its blazing yellow background, the work reflects the sun’s heat, as well as what the Los Angeles-based artist characterizes as her anger about the socio-political trends of our times.