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Portraits and Still Lifes by Vera Mercer at Kommunale Galerie in Berlin
Vera Mercer, Eva Aeppli und Niki de Saint-Phalle, Paris um, 1960. "Eva Aeppli and Niki de Saint-Phalle, Paris" around 1960. ©Vera Mercer.

By: Matthias Harder

BERLIN.- The photographic work of Vera Mercer has remained relatively unknown until now. Born in 1936 in Berlin as Vera Mertz, she received Swiss citizenship following her marriage in 1958 to Daniel Spoerri, then director's assistant at the Darmstadt Landestheater. In the same year, the couple moved to Paris, where they became part of an artistic avant-garde that would become known as the "Nouveaux Réalistes". In the following years, Vera Mercer, who was trained in modern dance and a self-taught photographer, portrayed visual artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Filliou, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely as well as Daniel Spoerri time and again. Mercer's friendship with Swiss painter and sculptor Eva Aeppli, who was Tinguely's partner in the early 1960s, led to a systematic, decades-long documentation of Aeppli's work, two publications as well as the founding of a small Eva Aeppli-Museum including her "Garden of the Zodiac" in Omaha, Nebraska. According to Mercer, no other artist has influenced her more than Aeppli.

In addition to the portraits that were sometimes realized through magazine commissions, Vera Mercer also photographed on her own initiative sites such as the historic central marketplace in Paris, "Les Halles", shortly before its demolition. The severed head of a cow with eyes half shut, discarded in a metal container, would otherwise make us cringe - in this context however, before a background of butchers in their blood-smeared aprons, the motif seems authentic. Here in "Les Halles" Mercer is directly confronted by a theme that would literally take center stage in her work, even decades later. She photographs food - fruit and vegetables, meat and fish - assembled and arranged at her home studio, and sometimes even cooked in her own kitchen. Her fascination for food in its purest form would consequently led to her opening an own restaurant.

In 1970, Vera moved with her second husband Mark Mercer from Paris to Omaha in the American Midwest. At the encouragement of Mark's father Samuel Mercer as well as Eva Aeppli, Vera provided black and white photographic murals of "Les Halles" for the French Café" being opened in Omaha by Samuel Mercer with designer Cedric Hartmann. The successful combination of the French way of life with American business sense led to further restaurants such as "V. Mertz" (taking Vera's maiden name), "La Buvette," and most recently "The Boiler Room". All are located but a stone's throw from one another in Omaha's Old Market district.

The photographer alternately works in Omaha and Paris – cities that mark the radius between the Old and the New World. Every year for several weeks she resides in a small apartment in the Latin Quarter, not far from her first Paris apartment with Daniel Spoerri and where a chapter in art history was written half a century before. This was also where she had her darkroom, working mostly at night on her portraits.

Mercer uses primarily a frontal perspective for her still lifes, eschewing shots from above or below or extreme angles. Although the camera captures her intricate compositions instantaneously, the path taken to achieve a final acceptable print can be quite long. The quality of her prints is impressive, with their unfathomable depth of color that lends her objects a surprising spatiality. Mercer succeeds in a nearly perfect balance of elements in her compositions. For example with the lighting: As in the classical period of still life painting, her frequent use of candlelight lends the objects a particular plasticity and emphasizes depth, especially when the candles are placed behind animals or fruits.

Vera Mercer’s iconography revolves around food, from its rawest form such as marketplace pork sides, to a restaurant-like culinary composition. A degree of sensuality is also important, whereby her often extravagant, baroque settings rarely cross over into the decadent. Her newest still life images shimmer with the most brilliant or saturated blazes of color, produced on an in-house ink jet printer that has long since succeeded the dark room. What is formally decisive, however, is the intermediate step; many effects that earlier would have been added or modified in the dark room – and even much more – is now possible with digital image processing.

With her still life images of flowers, fruits and animals Vera Mercer positions herself beyond contemporary art trends; her work finds better reference in classical art history. In the history of photography as well, the kitchen still life is one of the oldest pictorial forms: around 1860 Adolphe Braun, for example, created arrangements of dead wild game accompanied by rifle and game bag. Even 150 years later, the genre seems to have lost nothing of its appeal, Mercer’s photographs being but one example. Now as then, only the proper combination of elements can create the ideal “drama” necessary to give the images their decisive power.

Mercer’s use of extreme scale and proportions in many of her still lifes pushes the subject matter into the realm of the absurd or surreal. In one image, oversized rose petals in the background are actually a picture-in-picture, posing a challenge to the main arrangement on the small table in the foreground. In other photographs, the spatial graduation of objects becomes even more confusing when foreground and background are barely discernable from one another.

The observer is usually presented with fresh vegetables and fish, half withered flowers and animal skulls – in short, all stages of transience – in peaceful co-existence, a particular mixture of matter both living and dead. Life still seems present, in the ripe fruits though they no longer hang from tree branches or vines, in the meadow flowers albeit in a vase. The death imagery is just as present: classical Vanitas motifs like skulls, animal parts like fish heads, or half-melted candles are reminders – as memento mori – of our mortality. But the Mercer’s images do not dramatically announce the end of all things earthly; rather they confirm the process of growth and decay as a biological certainty. Vanitas originally represented vanity, but in an art historical context experienced a semantic shift to be equated with transience.

Mercer’s play with scale and proportions is key to understanding her still lifes and flower photographs. Her unusual color palette is singular, along with her bold and intuitive compositions. Be it a soup hen or a head of Brie – the elements are familiar; it is the combination that transforms them into something extraordinary. In one image a dead raccoon rests its head on a head of cabbage, to the right an antique wine glass is filled with lily blossoms. These are foregrounded by cherries distributed across the table and another glass container holding two eggs partially covered with water. And like a theatrical scrim, the background consists of another photograph of oversized grapes. In a religious context these would refer to Christ but here they are simply ripe fruits. The picture evokes the films of Peter Greenaway; Vera Mercer has carried us off to a curious and dreamlike world where the surrealist description of Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse) might apply: “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!"

Despite any possible surrealist inspiration, it is invariably Mercer’s immediacy to the food’s preparation that plays a vital role in her compositions. Each element is meticulously and sensually arranged for the photograph; the artist unremittingly invokes the beauty of her subjects no matter their stage of decay. Afterwards she often cooks the picture’s ingredients; the cycle comes full circle. The photographer reassembles the elements and recontextualizes the three sites of sustenance: market, kitchen and restaurant.

Her still lifes unite beauty and melancholy, joie de vivre with vanitas. She plays with naturalism and illusionism, levels traditional hierarchies: every component is of equal value, no detail of the composition is neglected – at most, somewhat reassessed. The artist domesticates biology, indeed the world; nature’s forms and colors are utilized and paraphrased. Yet here, too, are the hallowed remains of the authentic. The setting is familiar terrain: the own apartment instead of a commercial photo studio. Vera Mercer brings the bourgeois notion of the still life into the present and in passing expands our visual conventions.

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