Michael Mergen lives, works, and raises his family in Farmville, Virginia, though his catalog of photographs evokes the ethos of a wanderer, moving freely across the American landscape and calling it all home. That catalog features a determined layering of past and present, along with examination of the spaces where relationships happen and identities form. The images cross into the territory of major national events, from the Civil War to Civil Rights, while also reflecting in more intimate ways on the loss of loved ones, whether to battle, drugs, or the workings of time. Epilogue to Mars exemplifies that reflective tendency, assembling an array of interlinked pictures that all recall the year 1995, when Mergen and his friend Marshall “Mars” Bredt crossed 11,000 miles of U. S. territory in six weeks. A year after completing the trip, Bredt died of a heroin overdose. The exhibit finds the artist returning to places they visited, observing the transformations and continuities across the decades, and placing vintage snapshots at the sites of their production. The process yields a sometimes delicate, other times rough-and-ready merging of remembered geographies with the vistas of present perception.
The visible adhesive and uneven sutures announce the desire to put things back together, to reconstruct moments that continually fragment and dissipate. That struggle becomes especially clear in the metapictures where early photos lay atop contemporary earth, stones, and creek beds, trying to merge with their surroundings even as the camera captures, once more, their distinction from the things they represent. As those reflexive processes unfold, Mergen makes us witness to varied contrasts: different grains and densities of color, meandering curves and severe edges, mechanical reproduction and singularity, new life and decay. Epilogue to Mars exhibits an alert vision, gazing down, up, and toward the horizon; finding a focus, the gaze presses toward strata that lie behind or below the readily visible. Just as the texture of rain on a windshield captures our attention, so do the misty lights issuing from beyond the glass. A brick wall hosts day-lit mountains stretching into the distance; deserts and highways move forever toward the place where vision lapses. The search for Mars presents us with meditative, Rothko-esque blocks of color as well as motley portraits of shooting stars and dried-out clay. At another stop the lens finds a distressed, scribbled-on wall, the assertion of temporary presence orbiting the photographer’s shadow. In this deceptively bare and even ghostly surface we encounter the artist’s identification with his subject matter, the pale inscriptions that reverberate with mourning, staying power, and the testimonial capacity of the camera.
While fashioning his identity statement from the jumbled archives of memory, Mergen occasionally finds materials squeezed together so firmly as to leave their markings on one another or refuse separation altogether. Maps become engraved in the sky; one-time stacks of photographs melt into sealed booklets. For an artist so concerned with density, sedimentation, and accumulation of layers, there is no question of tearing them apart.
(This essay was commissioned by the artist and first appeared in the gallery brochure at Visionaries and Voices. Reprinted courtesy of Michael Mergen.)