I first saw Lydia Merrett’s work at the Slade Degree Show in 2023. After an hour of walking through the graduates’ presentations, I was ready to leave when I wandered into Merrett’s section. I stopped in front of her painting Afterglow. There were three runners in mid-stride, suffused in the thermal glow that accompanies aerobic exercise. She’d captured that moment where the blood is rushing through your body and, for an instant, the world is golden.
Merrett’s paintings were some of the most sophisticated I saw that day. Not just in technique but because her technique had found an idea to express. I watched a Kerry James Marshall interview where he said (and I paraphrase) that a painting is a visual essay. The ideas behind the work should be evident in the work. Merrett’s ideas were clear. Her women were in motion. Their limbs were strong and muscled but their features were blurred. They were not interested in prettiness. They were in the moment. They were present.
I met Merrett briefly at the Slade show. She was surrounded by friends and family. I congratulated her on her depictions of the female body in motion. Not reclining. Not hiding from or confronting the viewer’s gaze but, instead, completely oblivious to it. Merrett’s women were active and engrossed in their own world.
Six months later, we met again on the eve of her first solo exhibition in London. She was at work in a studio space partitioned into stalls for several artists. The partitions did not rise to the ceiling and you could hear the work and conversations of the other artists. The atmosphere was collegiate.
Although it was Merrett’s first solo show, she has been an artist since childhood. She grew up in Cheshire. A creative mother and an older sister who was a painter and had an art degree served as inspiration. Merrett remembers starting to paint when she was four years old and her interest in art continued all the way through school. Her early works were figurative and, after a foundation year at Manchester Metropolitan, she went on to Goldsmiths to study art. Painting was not in fashion. There was a greater focus on other mediums and so Merrett tried her hand at new things. She laughed at her attempts to make installations, in particular a tent fashioned from lace and litter. It was supposedly a commentary on the fear of public speaking. Her more conceptual works were not a success but the three years at Goldsmiths helped cement in Merrett’s mind that she was a painter.
In the years after Goldsmiths, she worked as an artist’s assistant in London. This served as an apprenticeship where she improved her technique and learned how to layer colours. It explains why she comes to her first solo exhibition with such technical maturity. After six years of working, she had saved enough to apply for a Masters degree at the Slade.
I asked why she felt she needed one? After all, she already had one degree and years of experience. But although Merrett may have improved her skills, she was yet to find her focus. She had always wanted to paint but she didn’t know what to paint. She had a technique, and now she was searching for an idea.
Before the Slade, Merrett flitted between painting landscapes, painting figures, and painting close-ups of hands. As she gained confidence in her tutorials, she homed in on the fact that she wanted to represent womanhood. Her subject matter initially sprung from the autobiographical. Merrett is a runner and she began running for mental clarity. You see that in the work. The bodies are in motion but the still faces suggest calm minds.
Merrett begins her paintings with sketches. In her notebooks, you see her confident draughtsmanship. The strokes are strong and clear, and a few lines convey motion and energy. She sketches to understand what lines are necessary and then only the strongest, most important lines are transferred to the canvas. It gives the final paintings a sophisticated economy.
I ask her why she is so interested in motion? She responds that she finds movement exhilarating. She has set herself the difficult task of capturing movement in a medium that is more suited to the still life and the static pose. And yet, Merrett succeeds in pinning down on canvas the split-second moment that allows the viewer to inhabit the motion of her figures.
Painting is a physical act for Merrett, and she often stands when she is working. She uses a brush to apply colour and rags to remove colour. She pays particular attention to the background of her figures. The individual brushstrokes are visible and give her paintings an extra layer of energy and motion.
Her painting Moving as One, included in this exhibition, is her most ambitious work to date. A crowd of runners charge at an angle, almost spilling out of the canvas. The runners in the foreground are more precisely drawn but the figures in the background are more blurred. The figures are set close to each other, arms pressed against elbows, and you feel the warm cluster of running in a crowd. None of the figures interact. Each person stares straight ahead, locked in their own mental world, focused on the task at hand. The painting could also be titled “Solitude in Community”.
As well as paintings, there are also monotypes, a technique that I’m unfamiliar with. She explains how these one-off prints work and she is excited to continue making works in this medium. I am glad to see her experimenting. Too often, artists at the start of their careers find some success and give up on trying new things.
Next for Merrett is another solo show in South Korea. I get a sneak peek at these new paintings and her experimentation continues. I recognise the brushstrokes but the subject matter is different, quieter and more introspective.
At the end of our time together, I ask her how she feels about the art market. For someone who has been painting for so long, she hasn’t had many dealings with it. The first paintings she sold were from her degree show. She is trying to navigate it as best she can but it’s not her focus. After her two shows, she’s looking forward to having the space to develop more ideas. Her goal for the year is to keep exploring and keep pushing new things. Whatever she makes, it will be worth seeing.
Chibundu Onuzo was born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1991. She is the author of three novels: The Spider King’s Daughter (2012), Welcome to Lagos (2017) and Sankofa (2021). A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and regular contributor to The Guardian, she is the winner of a Betty Trask Award, has been shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Commonwealth Book Prize and the RSL Encore Award, and has been longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and Etisalat Literature Prize.