Party games


A child’s birthday party should be a consummately happy event. But the talented painter Mia Merlin looks at that celebration through the wiser eyes of an adult. Removing nostalgia’s blinders, Merlin’s lovely, bittersweet paintings instead capture the truth of childhood as a mixture of expectation, anxiety, wonder and loneliness.

Drawing from home movies of her own family’s birthday parties, Merlin’s paintings are infused with the colors of timeworn film. The color scheme — faded pinks, beachy corals, Kelly greens, butter yellows — are instantly evocative of a vanished time and place. It’s indebted not only to the seductive palette of old photos and furnishings, but the children themselves, who are all alabaster skin flushed red with excitement or trepidation.

Merlin has clearly done some scrupulous editing of her home movies by stopping the whirl of action for a significant moment of arrested insight into its emotional undertones.

In “Cousin,” children with plates of food before them stare vacantly into the camera, suggesting boredom or diminished expectations or any number of glum moods to counteract the festivities. The work suggests a frank reassessment of childhood itself as an event — like the birthday party — that can often fall short of desired expectations.

The artist’s light-infused paintings, defined by flickering candles or drenched in morning sunshine, offer a stage set for happiness that fretful moments do not deliver. In one of Merlin’s most common scenarios, a child sits at the lip of a vast table, hypnotized by glowing birthday candles, frozen stock still in contemplation. In “Boy in Space,” a child in a sailor suit engages in a rapturous one-on-one with the birthday cake’s glowing lollipop candles. At the edge of painting, his mother’s chin juts into the frame and his daddy’s tanned hand grasps a nearby chair back.

There is the sense of a vast, complicated event rigged to please adults where the children and their isolated reveries become potent asides. The children who are at center stage seem to hover between a solitary self-possession and a sense of being lost in the shuffle.


Tearing the wrapping off

For The Journal-Constitution

Even a middle-class childhood is a mixture of joy and anxiety. Mia Merlin explores this emotional terrain in paintings based on frames from her father’s home movies of family birthday parties. Her technique turns the soft focus of enlarged film images into a dark-toned version of impressionism.

Sometimes the subject matter is as familiar as “Birthday Candles,” “Birthday Cake” and “Opening Presents,” to cite the titles of a few works. But even these scenes are viewed from unusual angles. The topic could get as stickily sweet as the frosting being licked off a child’s fingers in one painting, but Merlin’s composition and color choices keep things under control. One of the things that separates serious art from sentimental pictures is the capacity to capture well-known emotions in unexpected ways, and Merlin has done that very well indeed.

The pictures’ blurriness may also symbolize bewilderment. The close-in perspective presents a buzzing confusion, aptly reflecting a small child’s world, in which everything is exciting but nothing makes much sense just yet. The children shown in the paintings seem to be having fun, but Merlin forces us to realize how strangely intense the party atmosphere is for a sensitive child. In one painting, the table glows like some feast in a fairy tale, but other works appear to suggest that all the compulsory playing might take the edge off the magic for a child who would rather be thoughtful than boisterous.

This interpretation of what’s going on is supported by the character of the most popular work in the show. Most viewers are mesmerized by “Treasure Hunt,” an outdoor scene of a young girl peering into the branches of a tree filled with the vivid golds of autumn leaves. The vista seems as open and clear as the indoor scenes are cramped and confusing, and the serenity of the composition suggests that the treasure is not the trinket hidden in the tree branch but the child’s freshly happy perception of the world.