Once one of the elder statesmen of Grand Rapids’ art scene, Armand Merizon continued to paint as his vision failed him, calling on instinct and experience as he put brush to canvas.
The ongoing exhibition Armand Merizon: His Life and Art at Muskegon Museum of Art takes a retrospective look at the prolific painter’s work and highlights the evolution of the late Merizon’s techniques and subject matter.
The exhibit features more than 20 paintings from various collectors, including Calvin College and his long-time friend Muriel Zandstra, who recently released both a biography and documentary about Merizon’s life.
The paintings range from early landscapes from his late teens to more intuitive and abstract works in his final years, especially as he battled rheumatoid arthritis and lost his vision due to macular degeneration.
“People remark on the beauty of the paintings,” said Art Martin, MMA’s senior curator and director of collections and exhibitions. “They are accessible and they’re beautiful and that’s the core of what he was trying to achieve. He wanted you to feel like you were in these places, and he really succeeded at that.”
Merizon, a Dutch Calvinist, grew up in Grand Rapids and made his living as a painter. He had limited formal training and didn’t fit in very well in school, eventually hopping the train to Chicago. A neighbor gave him some art lessons, but generally, he had an innate artistic talent and a skill for observation and technique.
“Part of the appeal of the show, he really is a master technician and so he worked through a wide variety of styles,” Martin said.
Some of the paintings have a lot of drawing elements added to them, a meandering script of marks across the surface to imply a lot of energy in motion, Martin said. His early works are “very full of detail, highly realistic,” but he moved to more simplified shapes and forms as his vision deteriorated.
He primarily worked with oil and acrylic, and while he experimented with different social and environmental themes, he is best known for his landscapes. The exhibit also provides some comparisons, including two paintings of a Coast Guard station done about 10 years apart: one is more American impressionism and the other more abstract.
Jon McDonald, a painter, illustrator and professor at Kendall College of Art and Design, noted at the opening that Merizon was truly interested in the pursuit of the beautiful.
“I think that reflects in all of the work in the gallery,” Martin said. “It really becomes about color and light and space, and the landscape was the best way for him to translate all of that.”
Martin called Merizon a “beloved figure” among West Michigan collectors and his peers. He was a prolific painter celebrated for his style and skill as much as his supportive and encouraging presence. He influenced countless artists as a mentor and founding member of the Grand Valley Artists organization.
“He was constantly looking and constantly thinking about what he was making and how he was doing it,” he said. “He was very humble and incredibly passionate.”
The MMA previously exhibited his work as part of the West Michigan Eight exhibit several years ago and organized this exhibition in conjunction with Zandstra’s book. It’s also a way to continue the museum’s legacy of showcasing and supporting Michigan artists. The exhibition will travel to the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City in 2019.
Highlighting another Michigan artist, Nat Rosales’ FantasMenagerie runs through Jan. 13 and showcases his whimsical sculptures made from scrap metal, repurposed mechanical parts and found objects.
The exhibit features flying elephants and horses pulling carts, made of all kinds of strange gears and clockwork. His work is described as “an amalgam of whimsy, fantasy and mechanics.” The result is a blend of Alice in Wonderland and H.G. Wells, Martin said.
Rosales creates cast bronze and brass animal sculptures, vehicles and other tabletop contraptions from a hodgepodge of materials: door and drawer knobs, decorative lamp bodies, gears and drives, and other pieces and parts found at scrap yards and flea markets.
MMA staff first met Rosales through the Regional Exhibition in 2005 and have watched his work evolve and mature. Martin and others have followed and encouraged him over the last decade, and the MMA acquired two of his works .
“It’s fun for us,” Martin said. “We loved Nat’s work from the beginning, but because we’ve had this close relationship, we’ve been able to see him improve technically and aesthetically.”
Rosales grew up in Texas and moved with his family to Manistee, where his family bought an asparagus farm and he eventually found a job at the paper mill. He has been drawn to sculpture since childhood, often taking objects apart and trying to reconfigure the pieces into something new.
“He had a lifelong interest in modern sculpture, especially those guys he felt looked like him; laborers and machinists versus guys in ties and overcoats,” Martin said.
After retiring, he started focusing more seriously on his art. Influenced by his Mexican and Catholic heritage, Rosales’ personal interest in Cubist and Modern sculpture also informs his work.
The exhibit appeals to families, tinkerers or anyone interested in mechanics and how things work.
“It’s whimsical and it just speaks to a joy of disassembling and reassembling parts into something new,” Martin said.
Armand Merizon: His Life and Art
Through Jan. 6
FantasMenagerie: The Sculptures of Nat Rosales
Through Jan. 13
Muskegon Museum of Art
296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon
muskegonartmuseum.org, (231) 720-2570
MMA opens two new exhibits in December
Dec. 13–March 10
SONS: Seeing the Modern African American Male
Presented by the MMA in collaboration with photographer Jerry Taliaferro, this exhibition of photography features African American men from the greater Muskegon community.
Dec. 13–March 10
Ad Man: Joseph Grey II
Joseph E. Grey II is an artist, designer, art director and writer. The exhibit features numerous examples of his work as a professional illustrator and creative director, highlighting his pioneering presence as one of the earliest African Americans to work in the New York advertising world. It also explores Grey’s painting through his earliest abstract to his latest watercolor work.