Pamela Merory Dernham

By Terri Cohn

“Figures are my words…they are my blocks of text”.1
Pamela Merory Dernham

Pamela Merory Dernham has spent much of her career working with the human form as her primary expressive subject.  She describes her interest in the figure as a means to represent “human interaction (and) human tension”. Continuing an exploration of the communicative potential of the figure that began with clay, for more than a decade wire has been Merory Dernham’s primary medium and means to create the multitude of figurative components that populate her complex compositions.  For her, the appeal of working with wire is its directness and the rapidity with which she can manipulate it to create expressive gestures, as though drawing in space.

Using wire as a primary sculptural medium has allowed Merory Dernham the freedom to liberate line and image in space, much like Gego, the German-Venezuelan artist who created numerous Drawings without Paper.  Merory Dernham has primarily worked between the two- and three-dimensional worlds, creating non-narrative figurative compositions that play with space and light and shade, as well as the relationship of line to ground.  By breaking away from the containment of the picture plane, as well as from the limitations of sculptural realization in usual contexts, she is one of a select group of artists—Gego, Calder, Picasso, Eva Hesse, Richard Tuttle–whose work has helped to rematerialize line as a sculptural medium.  Creating line drawings in wire also allows Merory Dernham to transform her representation of the body from realistic depictions of life into symbolic shapes. She enables stories to emerge from abstract compositional arrangements of figure groups, explaining that,

[they are] expressed in the formal composition, the movement of the eye, the line, the dynamics, the light, the dark and especially the layering…the more interplay there can be between the figures, the greater is the potential to play with the possibility of what the interaction means.”

Merory Dernham’s enduring passion for the human shape initiates her creative process.  As she says, “I have it [the figure] there not exactly to be your individual Rorschach test, but it is.”  She also has a deep sense of connection to the physicality of moving the wire in her hand. This “deeply satisfying physical act”, the intuitive connection between eye and hand, plus her attraction to certain gestures or movements, influence her approach to creating figures in sessions she refers to as “gesture jags.”  Her passion for composition then takes over as she pins the figures to the wall and manipulates them: adding, subtracting, layering, stretching and twisting figures, opening space or closing it until she sees a resolution. She also uses thicker and thinner gauges of wire to realize a sense of perspective depth in her compositions.

Merory Dernham cites the ways in which she has been inspired by historical forms of two dimensional visual storytelling—such as the play of frontal and profile elements within a single figure in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the distillation of a complex story in Greek vases or Renaissance frescoes, and the dynamic composition of Indian temple sculpture.  For her, most important about such works is not their potential as religious narratives, but rather the ways in which those scenes “express the human condition.”

As a seemingly natural progression in her development from working in clay, since 2004 Merory Dernham has also been experimenting with using wire figure groups to create large-scale vessel shapes.  Though these works were initially realized as two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional forms, more recently she has begun to free them from the wall enabling them to stand independently in space.  These vessels, composed not of actual figures, but of vertical ribs attached at the mouth and base, become a metaphor for the figure as she stacks and groups them. She describes her pleasure in these pieces as, “I’m doing now in wire what I never did in clay, which is make really beautiful vessel forms.”  In another series, she is suspending her figures, mobile-like, from the ceiling. This move away from the wall suggests her commitment to the materiality and tactile sensibility of her sculptures, as they become moving traces in time and space.

Merory Dernham’s process of liberating the figure—and the forms she composes with them—has allowed her to expand the potential of her work within the evolving parameters she sets for it.  Having made her own leap into the gallery space, she has opened the potential to contribute to the discourse concerning the interdependency of drawing and sculpture and their relationship to social space.  By extension, she also continues to create new means to reconsider human relationships in the broader context of our own collective narrative.

Terri Cohn is a writer, curator, and art historian, and contributing editor to Artweek magazine. She is a faculty member and Graduate Faculty Advisor at the San Francisco Art Institute, and serves as a trustee for the Djerassi Resident Artist Program.


1All quotes are from a January, 2008 interview with the artist.

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