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Rock the Boat

Lester Merriweather's last show is about class, commercialism.

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I'm a fan of Lester Merriweather's art. His intricate collages, built out of carefully arrayed clippings from luxury magazines, are both bleak and sumptuous. They looked great in 2013 at TOPS Gallery, as a part of his exhibition "Black House | White Market" and again in 2014 in his Crosstown Arts solo exhibition "Colossus." Merriweather is also an active curator who currently heads the University of Memphis' Fogelman Galleries.

"Nothing Is For Ever Last," Merriweather's latest solo exhibition at the Dixon, is not his best. The work is similar, in both subject matter and approach, to that shown in previous exhibitions. Many of the works depict colonial-era ships on crested seas beneath mythologically bright blue skies. Others are gilded assemblages of luxury magazine ads, flowers, and jewels arranged ornamentally on matte canvases. The best work in the show, hydra, is a seascape composed of glossy female hair. A monster built from the nude arms of white models emerges from the hair-sea only to be flattened against a glitchy sky. In hydra, Merriweather recasts taken-for-granted images of (white) female beauty into something disorienting and unexpected.

Merriweather's works are best when they awe with scale and shininess. The work in "Nothing Is For Ever Last" feels undercooked compared to past exhibitions. Collages are mixed in with a variety of model ships. Merriweather replaces the ships' sails with red and blue bandanas (crip ship and blood vessel) or else he dips them in plaster to ghostly effect (dipped ship). These pieces succeed more in the description than the execution; Many look shabby where they should gleam.

Elsewhere, Merriweather replaces the hulls of ships with Louis Vuitton and Chanel Bags. untitled (commercial vessel) doesn't need a title; it is all designer monograms, afloat in dark waters, its crew overboard and grasping from the depths. Hip-hop-influenced high fashion intersects Euro-colonialist imagery for an overarching comment on the violent legacy of global luxury trade.

One of Merriweather's smaller, untitled collages is built from the spread of a historical magazine. Page left is a description of the British Navy's defense strategies. Page right is a romantic painting of a ship — The Resolution — capsizing in a storm. Merriweather collages a model's arm into the waves, sea-monster-style. This work is simple, but it stands out because it is so directly related to what's across the hall in the Dixon; an exhibit called "Hail Britannia!" that features a lot of paintings of ships and the aristocrats who owned them.

I imagine the point of putting exhibitions like "Hail Britannia!" and "Nothing Is For Ever Last" next to each other is to create what curators like to call "a conversation" between two different kinds of work. Merriweather's work says: British colonialism spawned centuries of waste and human casualty and wrought havoc on the globe. "Hail Britannia!" says: The British Empire employed lots of painters who were not half bad at painting seascapes.

Maybe this implied "conversation" would have more going for it if there weren't about 10 times more paintings in "Hail Britannia!" than are in "Nothing Is For Ever Last" or if Merriweather's work pulled off the grandiosity it has in past exhibitions. Or maybe if the exhibition literature, which alludes to "statements" that Merriweather's work makes about "urban" life in America (must we tiptoe so lightly?), had been braver.

"Nothing Is For Ever Last" suggests a void in the conversation on race and wealth in America that it doesn't attempt to fill. It left me wanting more.

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