Ocean of Bling

Lester Merriweather's extraordinary collage at Tops Gallery comments on history and culture

Lester Merriweather's collage, 'legend a.k.a. hard to get a handle on this double-edge sword'

Courtesy of Lester Merriweather and Tops Gallery

Lester Merriweather's collage, "legend a.k.a. hard to get a handle on this double-edge sword"

You have through Sunday to see the most extraordinary work of art presently on display in the city. This is “legend a.k.a. hard to get a handle on this double-edge sword”, an immense collage by Lester Merriweather, part of his two-part show “Black House/White Market” at Tops Gallery, the basement exhibition space at Front and Huling. On view now is the second segment in the series.

Imagine the ocean comprised completely of diamond and ruby and sapphire rings, bracelets, brooches and other luxury decorative items, the gaudier the better, all set in gold, silver and platinum.

Atop that glittering and expensive sea floats an old-fashioned sailing ship, a device employed in several of the works in the exhibition, including one on which is found the phrase “10 Ways to Build Wealth.” The link would be the slave trade, one leg of the 18th century Atlantic and Caribbean trade triangle that included sugar and rum as well as enslaved Africans. The trope also reminds us that the exploration of and opening of the “New World” was originally motivated by the search for gold and silver, the fabled, long-lost El Dorado.

Merriweather’s recent work exists at the nexus of power, wealth, luxury goods, celebrity, sex, sports, entertainment, the whole package that defines contemporary culture and is epitomized in the term “bling.” His collages, which require meticulous and tireless labor, do not overtly criticize the frenzy of fame and consumption as much as they are permeated by the social and racial effects, and thus become essentially political. (It’s time to revive that potent slogan of the 1960s: “Everything is political.”) The artist makes implicit the historical and imaginative connections among the European greed, the slave trade and the desire for material goods that accompanied or even fostered the birth of America.

From that implication grow the explicit connections between conspicuous consumption and the allure and glamour of sports, entertainment, beauty and media infamy, much of that commercialization erected on the talents and careers of black athletes and music and film stars.

Tops is a compact, though dramatic, space, so exhibitions featured there are necessarily limited in scope. Besides the collage I described, Merriweather contributes two more large and quite different works and then four or five smaller ones. Each, whatever the size and difference in the nuances of form and content, contributes a sense of burgeoning commitment to the examination of the financial, social and racial politics of American culture, a fact that does not detract a bit from their stunning visual impact.

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Lester Merriweather, “Black House/White Market”

At Tops Gallery, 400 S. Front (entrance on Huling), through Sunday

Open today through Sunday, 1 to 6 p.m.

Call 901-340-0134

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