With content that’s traditional and sacred, Eyob Mergia paints his homeland

Dawn-Michelle Baude

Two stars

The Philosophy of Form and Color Through April 2; Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The Studio at Sahara West Library, 702-507-6222.

The 72 paintings in Eyob Mergia’s The Philosophy of Form and Color are inseparable from the artist’s biography. Mergia grew up in the Ethiopian highlands, studying classical art at the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts under instructors trained in the former USSR during the Cold War. After moving to the U.S. in 1997, he briefly continued his art studies in South Dakota, where he encountered Cubism and other modernist tendencies. The educational influences—one toward realism, the other toward abstraction—are tempered by a third: traditional art of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Mergia at Sahara West

Several works in The Philosophy of Form and Color are overtly religious. The 14-by-10-foot painting “Ark of the Covenant” (2007) is assembled from small canvases in the shape of the ark, a sacred object said to have been brought from Jerusalem to Axum, where it remains in the possession of the Ethiopian church. Mergia’s painting renders the ark in an expressionist style emphasizing its religious mystery. In another large work, the mural drawing “Genesis” (2011), he depicts in charcoal the transformation of nothingness into the phenomenal world. Circular forms, standard in Ethiopian religious art, bob from the initial moment of creation through the birth of mankind. Some are faces; some suggest atoms or planets; some turn into eyes; at least one is a womb.

Mergia’s preference for traditional content reflects the aesthetic values of Ethiopian religious art whose character has altered little over the course of two millennia. His realism, too—whether it’s an expressionist market scene or portrait of a young girl—maintains a traditional, early 20th-century character. The preferred palette, in the colors and hues of his homeland, reads as the historical oranges, blacks and browns of the modernist era.

That said, Mergia has several abstract works, such as the canvases assembled in “The Philosophy of Form and Color” (2016)—its circles veering more toward Basquiat than saints—that seem more up-to-date. Similarly, “The Spoils of War” (2016), with its abstracted figures and geometric forms, is fresh and interesting.

Considered as a whole, The Philosophy of Form and Color has little to do with the restless frontier of contemporary art. Its goal is not to innovate in an art world that was thoroughly deconstructed, impacted by new media, and struggles—with varying degrees of self-consciousness and irony—to engage the confounding circumstances of the global world in which it is made. Mergia’s art is rooted in the sacred; it’s more about feeling than thinking. It attracts those drawn to decorative painting and/or traditional narratives. Taken in its idiom, and on its own terms, it succeeds.

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