Josie Merck at Spring Street Gallery

The art and nature of the bald-faced wasp nest
Thu, 09/02/2021 - 6:30pm
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Josie Merck will be having her second guest-artist exhibition at the Spring Street Gallery with an opening on Saturday, September 4. Her work has covered natural subjects before: “Trees of Block Island” and “Natives/ Invasives/ and Exotics.” This show is inspired by the natural history of insects.
Merck has been looking specifically at an old nest that was given to her by her family in Rhinebeck, New York. She learned this is the work of bald-faced wasps (or hornets). The earthy colors were appealing to her eye as well as the rhythmic pattern of the “paper” bands of contour lines.
Her intimate collection of paintings and a few objects relate to the exquisite product of the bald-faced wasp queen’s yearly task of creating a home: the wasp nest. Instinctively, we humans tend to avoid these nests, often knowing from generations of experience that wasps are threatened when disturbed.
Wasp nests have been painful at times. But for the studied and curious observer, the home of this social species is revealed as wondrous: serving as an incubator, a nursery, a fortress - and perhaps even an art gallery! Like bees and ants and other species considered “eusocial” by evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson and others, the community of bald-faced wasps works towards a common and benevolent goal. When new generations mature, they too pitch in at the construction site.
The queen wasp forages for wood, which she then harvests and chews up into bits with her strong mandibles. The next step is to mix it with her saliva to provide patching material of a specific color for both the inside and outside of the nest. Each color batch represents a full mouth’s worth. The effort and end results are so extraordinary that they encourage us to consider the wasp’s capacities within a rich range of social roles: architect, builder, queen,
organizer, and artist.

Merck often experiments with her materials, playfully and innovatively mixing up colors and media and papers. In the work for this exhibit, she uses delicate rice papers. Some are more fibrous than others, more in synch with her subject.
As for the color palette in these pieces, the artist foraged within her own environment for woody substances. Her found materials even include shipping cardboard—and its soft corrugated tan. The assembled results are magical and evocative! One viewer may sense a landscape, another a topographic map, another a textile.
“The natural objects of the bald-faced wasp are dazzling,” she says, and wonders: “How does this insect makes her choices? Smell? Color? Malleability? Beauty?”