My sister used to have this fat, pleather bound human anatomy book. Smack in the center were plates of the human body preceded by pages of clear overlays. As you peeled away each layer you revealed a different view of our innards from the central nervous system to the circulatory network. It was like a surgery as strip tease. As far as I know, it was the only part of the book either of us ever turned to.
Nowadays I’m much more squeamish. My friend Sarah and I abandoned The Universe Within exhibit that was here a few years ago after a grand total of ten minutes. It’s both disquieting and enthralling to view humanity in pieces. It’s hard to reconcile the vivisected with the living, moving whole that is a human being. As soon as your eyes reach a face your objectivity tends to go out the window.
So I was curious to see what my reaction would be to Jen Merrill’s work at the Iceberger Gallery. I’m happy to report that it gravitates toward the enthralling end of the spectrum. Taking scientific illustration as her starting point, she playfully inserts relationships between the body objectified by arrangement and the use of symbols which mimic those found in diagrammatic work which might mean something or nothing. Her pieces are small which seems pleasingly appropriate given the source material. It’s as if they were rejected for inclusion in a journal or instructional poster because the illustrator had suddenly gone mad or shown a disturbing penchant for visual poetry. Each work is hand painted and cut yet her precision gives the illusion of the perfection of die-cutting or the mechanical action of a circular slicer. The painting completes the uniformity of the presentation: I had really thought some of the material was linoleum since there was not a hint of brush work. She adheres to the practice of solid colors to denote an individual organ or vascular net: a convention to aid the student of anatomy in identifying the relevant feature of inspection.
In Home Surgery with Heaving Knots and Fortitude an illustration comes to life taking matters into its own hands, tugging at the trail of corded up intestinal paper. The Proportion of Perception presents a lump of facial tissue suspiciously eyeing its own (?) wishbone. Death of a Baby uses dismemberment as a metaphor for emotional loss. Man in a Box turns an investigation of the esophageal tract into the representation of a subject’s silent bellow, his fists determinedly clenched, his wishbone dangling from a red cord. There’s something charming about all of them. It’s in the best interest I suppose for the medical illustrator to help the student divorce the representation from the subject matter. By adding a spark of life and humor to her work, Merrill weirdly seems to give those diagrams back their humanity. In fact, they seem to be demanding to be taken notice of despite the fact that their veins are spilling out (for which they seem rather embarrassed).