Painter Trina Merry’s living, breathing human canvases reclaim art history from the male gaze

By Bliss Bowen 

“Body painting” often evokes images of children receiving face paint on their cheeks at community fairs, or elaborate “sleeves” inked on limbs by tattoo artists. But Trina Merry’s live body paintings, which she calls “performances,” create stunning optical illusions, the most transformational of which cause nude models to seemingly disappear into their surroundings: the bulge of a young man’s closed-eye becomes buried beneath a painted-on American flag, a nude rises ghostlike from an amphitheater’s stone stairs, a semi-reclined woman blends into the scenery of Florence, Italy—like she is dreaming its architecture into being—and the Tower of Pisa seamlessly sprouts from another woman’s head.

Merry says it is all part of her effort to “reclaim the fine art nude in the public space.” She’ll be painting live models for “Bodies of Evidence,” a demonstration at the Getty Villa this Saturday (International Museum Day) and Sunday (May 19).

According to Merry, the path toward her unconventional artwork began with a moment that sounds as cinematic as the films she once studied at Azusa Pacific University: she was struck by lightning in a car! Consequently “super sensitive to electricity,” she left her Hollywood art department job and moved to Yosemite for 10 months to heal, during which time she painted, contemplated her options, and hung out with musician friends who eventually coaxed her into getting body painted onstage at a show.

“The experience was so cool,” she recalls, and she subsequently engaged in conversations and classes that helped her realize she wanted to wield the paintbrush herself and facilitate body-painting experiences for others, and “try to pioneer something that other people weren’t doing.” Graffiti painting in San Francisco, where she “camouflaged people into a mural,” was followed by time in Santa Fe and then New York, where she’s lived for five years.

It’s one thing to be faked out by the sight of a woman scantily clad in lingerie that turns out to be painted on. It’s quite another to suddenly discern a man, woman and child within a tree’s gnarled bark. Such moments of poetic visual awakening are a signature of Merry’s work, which has taken her as far afield as Easter Island — and to remote communities where she’s hiked mountains with indigenous body painters to collect pigment from the earth and cut sugar cane to create body paint.

Nowadays, she has access to nontoxic, FDA-approved paint in a broader color range. But the human body’s temporary canvas remains integral to the message of her work.

“I value temporal experiences. I think it’s a reflection of what life is, and that art should reflect life,” she observes. “Performance art is exceptionally valuable and important to the contemporary art conversation. Working with the human body as a surface, and honestly also somewhat as the subject matter, is important especially as we’re trying to deal with concepts of body image, gender, identity, treatment of women, and race, because through body paint, in a lot of ways, color goes away.”

Her illusions depend on precise framing and the flattest lighting possible, particularly in outdoor environments. (She uses an app to navigate and chart the position of the sun.) This weekend’s show is designed to bring attention to the Getty Villa’s antiquities collection, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman nude sculptures. Models will be vulnerably revealing themselves even as they’re “hiding in plain sight” in exterior and interior locations around the Getty Villa.

“I want to reclaim the fine art nude in the public space,” Merry says. “The nude in art history has usually been women, and it’s largely been painted by men. It was a means of not only objectifying them, but also obsessing about and possessing them within private quarters.”

Although she has opened up her painting to both men and women (“gender is an interesting conversation”), she has been focusing more on women with body issues since Donald Trump’s election. Shocked by the way he spoke about women and their bodies, she decided she needed to “hold safe space for other women, to be empowered and to support them and also to try to work through that myself on a personal level,” she says, “because that encouraged a lot of other men to behave similarly, which is unfortunate. I truly believe that women supporting women is one of the most powerful things in the world, and the days of the good old boys are coming to an end.”

Photographs and videos Merry makes to document her work extend it into other mediums, and become “an interesting practice of compassion, to see how another person sees,” she says. But what really draws her, still, is the “performance” of live body painting.

“The person is alive, and it’s just a moment. The art piece can have a heartbeat; it can have a breath; there’s a twinkle in the eye. You don’t get that twinkle-in-the-eye personal experience when you’re casually walking by a normal painting.”

Trina Merry conducts live body painting demonstrations from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday and Sunday (May 18 & 19) at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. Admission is free, but timed-entry tickets are required. Parking is $20. Call (310) 440-7300 or visit getty.edu. Visit trinamerry.com for more info on the artist.

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