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Alumni Artist at Work at the Thorne

Randall Merchant
Randall Merchant in his Thorne studio.

In a studio off a back hall at the Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery, Randall Merchant ’77 is paying homage to the late Robert Neuman, his printmaking teacher at Keene State.

“I’m interested in art and space,” says Merchant, showing a photo of one of Neuman’s trademark geometric paintings, which he is reimagining as a hanging sculpture. It’s part of the work he’s doing this semester as one of two artists in residence at the Thorne.

Monument to No One in Particular, the 1971 Neuman oil painting, presents a 77-inch tall conceptual pyramid made up primarily of circles but also including triangles and assorted rectangular shapes. Merchant’s revisitation of the design will be 18 feet tall and three-dimensional. When it’s completed in May, the sculpture, made of polystyrene, will be hung in a to-be-determined spot in a campus building.

Curator and Museum Educator Shari Osborn urged the Thorne to support the development of a project that honors Neuman, an important artist and teacher, addresses a complex set of ideas about abstract art and electoral politics, and offers campus and community a compelling, accessible, and complicated artwork – and, as Osborn notes, “animates the Thorne with the ongoing and always surprising activity of a working artist.”

Merchant, who also paints landscapes and figures, collects polystyrene, all of which was originally packaging material, from an appliance shop and from friends who give him interesting-shaped pieces. Using an instrument he devised to cut the material with a hot wire, he duplicates the shapes in the Neuman painting at triple the size. He’ll coat them with an acrylic to prevent them from corroding, then will paint and assemble them into his monument to Robert Neuman.

Merchant has been making other polystyrene sculptures during his residency, as well, including a collection of thick square tiles painted green, yellow, and black, and into which he’s melted handprints. They can be stacked into a cube or arranged into a mosaic. He’s been interested in hands since watching a movie about prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux, France – which include many hand stencils. “Human beings have been doing these handprints all over the world for 40,000 years,” he says. “This is our expression of ourselves.”

He thinks of the handprint piece as a response to today’s political divisiveness. “I thought this was a way to show people that we’re all in this together. All of our hands,” he says.

An English major who still loves to write, Merchant comes from a Keene State family. His wife, Deb Merchant, is an alumna and associate professor of education, son Will is a 2009 grad, and mother-in-law Carolyn Cutter is a 1947 grad. Visit Merchant’s website for more information about his work.

Work by Merchant and Denise Dumas, a multimedia installation artist who is also in residence this semester, will be on exhibit at the Thorne in June.

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