You don't need Alice's "Drink Me" vial to visit a wonderland - just check out Merrill Steiger's upcoming "Worlds Collide" exhibition at The Gallery at Penn College. Microbes, mandalas, petroglyphs and spiraling galaxies play across Steiger's canvases, inviting viewers to peek through otherworldly portals.
"I like to create paintings that make people want to delve within themselves for answers," New York City native Merrill Steiger said.
"Worlds Collide" embodies the artist's quest for spiritual wisdom. Steiger regularly travels the globe seeking knowledge and inspiration for her art. She incorporates into her paintings cultural icons from faraway lands: Vietnamese sculptures, Zen rock gardens and Stonehenge rock circles.
Marrill Steiger’s “Worlds Collide” series will be on display at The Gallery at Penn College from March 19 to April 18. There will be an opening reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 21.
"A lot of the images you see are inspired by the extensive traveling that I do," Steiger said. "India, Turkey, Japan: I try to take a meaningful trip at least once a year."
Her paintings not only collide civilizations but also distance and scale. Cells and neurons are juxtaposed with depictions of the cosmos. The melding of the infinitesimal with the seemingly infinite is a recurring theme in Steiger's work.
"Macroscopic cosmic imagery is very similar if not identical to the microscopic imagery we see under a microscope," Steiger said. "What that tells me is that we are one with the universe."
A lifelong Buddhist, Steiger's paintings encourage viewers to explore their own spirituality. Her collage "Ancestral Journeys" features ax look through the mouth of a cave smattered with prehistoric paintings into the vast expanse of the Milky Way.
"The juxtaposition stimulates the viewer's eyes," Steiger said. "I bring together images that the viewer wouldn't normally combine. It gives them the chance to think about 'What if these images were together?' and what that would mean."
The "Worlds Collide" series aligns terrestrial and galactic elements like dominoes to be toppled and united by the viewer's imagination. The painting "Cosmic Architecture" depicts millions of miles of space on a single canvas. "A Way Out" shows a network of neurons beside what appears to be feuding white dwarf stars.
Fragmentation and abrupt perspective shifts mark Steiger's style. Varied patterns of line and shape create visual movement that brings her canvases to life. Some colors are so vivid and lines so precise that one wonders if Steiger's work passed through a computer.
"It's all hand done," she explained. "I'm a painter. I don't use any modern technology to enhance my work - it all comes from the brush and the fingertips."
In fact, the artist is highly skeptical of technology. She feels it estranges people from each other.
"For me, social media is pushing people apart," said said. "No one gets on the phone to talk to each other anymore. It's all texting. You can't hear each other's voices and in that regard I think technology is impersonal."
Steiger's art, on the other hand, is highly personal. Her themes are biological, astronomical and spiritual. She tries not to point her viewers toward particular conclusions about what her work means.
"I have my experience when I paint the painting but they'll have their own experiences when they see the work," she said. "I don't have to provide those answers."
Steiger began studying art at seven years old and has been painting ever since - more than 40 years.
Her work evolved from line drawings and gouache studies into painted collages spurred by her travels.
"I take hundreds of photographs and when I return home, I lay them out and incorporate bits of each photo into a collage," Steiger said. "It's kind of like I'm a storyteller: I use pieces of imagery to tell the story I want to tell."
When asked if she experienced any major changes as an artist over her decades-long career, Steiger said, "Absolutely. Just like my art, I am a work in progress. It would be pretty boring if that weren't the case."
Among Steiger's artistic influences are American contemporary artists James Rosenquist, Elizabeth Murray and Chuck Close.
"And then of course there's Picasso," said Steiger. "I adore him."
Much of Steiger's work unfolds spontaneously. She actively avoids premeditation and so doesn't always know how a painting will end.
"Picasso said the reason why people respond so well to his work is that he stayed childlike his entire career," she said. "He was not deliberate."
Steiger offered advice to aspiring artists:
"Try to work every day. And try not to be so deliberate - be more playful and don't worry so much about what the finished product is going to look like. The finished product is for the public to experience but the learning and excitement happens in the process."
Steiger's "Worlds Collide" series will be on display at The Gallery at Penn College from March 19 to April 18. There will be an opening reception from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. March 21. Steiger will be present to talk about her work and answer questions.