Garage bands are known for their youthful exuberance: a ruttish energy that rips through the fuzz of thrift store amplifiers, untuned guitars, and trash-can lid cymbals. Bad attitude provides the requisite quota of authenticity. Thom Merrick makes art the way garage bands make music. Trying to break on through by playing up the influences, (Wayne and Garth confessing to Alice Cooper: 'We are not worthy!'), Merrick began his career by covering various anti-form and assemblage experiments of the late 60s and early 70s - Morris, Kaprow, Oppenheim and Acconci - with the zeal of an upstart thrasher.
Merrick makes art from stuff in the garage. Tyres, motorcycle parts, cardboard boxes, dollies, winches, and whatever else can be bought at the hardware and automotive supply store. To some, junk; to others (boys), fetishes of the highest order. Ashley Bickerton - to name the most obvious of recent gadget connoisseurs - describes fixtures with a passion typically associated with the porno industry. Over the years, Merrick has combined or dismantled these materials in an attempt to establish his own idiosyncratic poetics of the suburban workshop, but the way that he does this seems to change relative to the style of the times. The 1991 installation of a dismantled Triumph motorcycle with each part spread at an equal distance from the others on the gallery floor, for example, was one of his most successful for its corporeal resonance. The title, however, which referred to the 'topic' of the Gulf War, went down like bolts in motor oil. When Barry Le Va, and other first generation scatter practitioners, rose from the dead to set things in historical perspective, younger artists began to tidy up.
In this exhibition, Merrick has done just that with the display of several discrete works. The smug, irreverent tone of each of the disparate pieces suggests that Merrick continues to play the punk provocateur; yet what audience he is trying to provoke is not so clear. In a work titled Three More Flags (1994), garbage cans, crushed to give the effect of movement, are fixed with flag mounts to steel poles. A gesture against all forms of establishment? Hopefully not. Adjacent to another work, Great Phone (1994), which has a garbage can mounted on a chrome stand, Merrick's garbage-can-flags seem to be nothing other than a testament to his own equivocal authority as artist-as-alchemist. That is, able to transform junk via voodoo touch into serious art. Other works consist of car covers, dollies and folding card tables; each item remounted so as to subvert its intended function. But Merrick's transformations don't come into focus, they only produce the nagging sensation that maybe they are supposed to be funny.
Many other young artists working today seem to face a similar dilemma. Sequestering groups of objects from a pre-existing semiotic unity (advertising, sports, fashion, or scientific laboratories), they attempt to dislocate their proper meanings and uses; resetting them so as to 'make art'. This has certainly been used to great effect in the past, but when it doesn't work the groups of objects sit dumbly in their original form - a garbage can is just a garbage can - and the artist's only resort is to invoke Duchamp's assisted readymades. The difference between success and failure is almost impossible to explain without recourse to slippery words such as vision, instinct, style or... talent. Yet this is precisely where what is significant, new or exhilarating is to be found - though not by Merrick in his garage.