Trina Merry is an acclaimed body painter known internationally for camouflaging people into environments and making living sculptures out of multiple bodies, then photographing her creations. Through her work, she has raised the profile of the medium to a fine art as she is exhibited in prestigious galleries, museums and showrooms across the globe, including the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial. Her latest series, "Lust of Currency,"
examines art in the new economy and how anonymous buyers, sellers, marketers and speculators have commoditized the medium. Specifically, the sale of masterpiece paintings for hundreds of millions of dollars. “When people don’t remember the name of a painting, but they do the price, that’s a very profound statement," says Merry. "How do we value art now? Is it by the historical significance or price tag?”
To create the series, Merry chose paintings to include from Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive art works. She downloaded images of the art from the Internet in their basest form – pixilated, flattened and not properly white balanced – and then printed on inexpensive matte. In that form, she camouflaged models into each painting. A moment from each performance was photographed and are printed on canvas in limited edition. Each piece of art is then renamed by their price-tag.
Merry did a live performance from the series on opening night of the Superfine! New York art fair May 2nd ((https://www.thecut.com/2018/05/the-superfine-art-fair-opens-in-new-york-today.html) where she painted one of her models into the da Vinci “Salvator Mundi” masterpiece that sold for a record $450.3 million at a Christie’s auction last November. She also created a live painting and exhibited four others from the series during the Miami Art Basel at Red Dot Miami contemporary art show in addition to the “Satellite Art Fair.”
She announced she is updating the series in June after the auction house Christie’s put up for sale items from “The Collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller.” Paintings from the offerings were sold for a record $646 million, including Monet’s “Nympheas en fleur,” Modigliani’s “Nu Couché (Sur Le Côté Gauche),” Picasso’s “1905, Fillette nue au panier de fleurs,” Matisse’s “Odalisque couchée aux magnolias” and Rothko’s “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose).” Those masterpieces will soon be added to Merry’s collection, titled (in sequence): “$84,687,500,” 157,200,000”, “115,000,000”, “$80,750,000,” “$73,000,000.”
"Lust of Currency" is just one of many projects the artist has done in the 12 years she has been painting. Now one of the art world’s most unique talents (she was named a “World Champion Body Painter” in 2012), Merry balances exhibitions with live performances, marketing campaigns, editorial projects, private commissions and her own passion projects. It’s not uncommon for her to start a series simply to make a statement.
Merry discovered the craft unexpectedly – she was struck by lightning while driving in Los Angeles and developed a severe sensitivity to electricity and power grids. She moved to Yosemite National Park, where she began to bodypaint, inspired by the work of artists like Yves Klein, Yayoi Kusama and Verushka. Merry then began studying with acclaimed talents Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic as a Watermill Center Summer Participant, where she created five living bodypaint installations on site. She also studied drawing and painting with Alex and Allyson Grey and was a bodypaint apprentice with Craig Tracy, judge for the TV show “Skin Wars”.
Here, the painter interviews herself.
Question: Can you explain what exactly you do?
Trina: I paint on people. Using a single perspective point, I create a trompe du'oeil flattening effect that either camouflages people into an environment or sculpts them into an object.
Q: How did you become interested in this particular art form?
Trina: When I was struck by lightning in Hollywood, it altered the course of my life. Everything turned white and there was a loud buzzing sound as the lighting filled her car. The most incredible aching sensation shot through my bones. Suffering from continuous a painful ache in my bones whenever i was near power lines or any electrical wires, i escaped to the sheltering forest of Yosemite National Park hoping for a reprieve. I spent a year painting by a little stream where i made friends with the local deer. It was during this time that i had a few glasses of absinthe with Amanda Palmer (the Dresden Dolls, TED Talks). Palmer encouraged Me to stand onstage and get body painted with the Dolls opening act- an Australian synesthesia art rock band called “The Red Paintings”. While wearing a silver mask that shot laser beams out into the audience, i experienced complete strangers painting my body with brightly colored space toys. Something sparked: Art had a heartbeat. Art could be vulnerable. Art was… happening.
Q: Why do you enjoy Bodypaint as opposed to conventional painting?
Trina: Painting on people is both physically and energetically exhausting but I love only having a few hours to create a painting from start to finish. That energy is such a burst of creation and to me it most accurately represents the experience of being alive. That buzzing moment when you kiss someone you love suspends time but it does come to an end. I still have drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, installation and video as a part of my process so I don't solely work on the body- but these are done in preparation to service the happening.
Q: What's painting in the body like versus painting on a traditional canvas?
Trina: My canvas has a twinkle in their eye, breath, a heartbeat. There's really nothing like using the body as a surface.
Q: What kind of paint do you use?
Trina: The medium I use is actually called Bodypaint. It's non-toxic, hypoallergenic and FDA approved. My team holds the highest standard for hygiene in the Bodypaint industry. Most bodypainters kits are full of viruses, bacteria and fungus from other people's skin. We do our very best to ensure team members and private clients do not receive STDs or other unwanted infections.
Q: How long does it take to complete a bodypainting?
Trina: Typically it takes 1-3 hours for my camouflage paintings, 2-12 hours for my human sculptures and 1-6 hours for other types of bodypainting. I don't really enjoy painting longer than about 4 hours because it's hard to maintain a certain energy consistency & I've been training the team to jump in and grab a paintbrush to make it go faster. The most common thing you'll hear me say on set is "paint faster guys!".
Q: Where do you find your models?
Trina: People request to model for me everyday. There's billions of people on this planet so it's really not hard to find a canvas. I now do closed auditions once a year and take on a limited number of performers on my NYC Bodypaint team.
Q: Isn't your artwork pornography?
No. My work does not involve people performing acts or the sale of adult sex toys. My Bodypaint happenings differ from say Yayoi Kusama who held Bodypaint orgies with the intent to protest war and violence. My models are occasionally nude which has a well precedented history in art and culture. From churches & museums to fountains and other publicly commissioned works, the fine art nude figure can be found everywhere.
Q: What are the challenges you encounter?
Trina: Time is always my biggest enemy and also my most honest friend. Whether it's fighting the sun, a deadline, or flying to another time zone where I re-live the same date twice, I have an accurate awareness and observations about time.
Q: What do people say when they see your art?
Trina: When they realize what they're actually looking at they freak out and think it's the coolest thing! "Wow!" is the most common response I hear and read.
Q: How has your family reacted to you being a body painter?
Trina: They're conservative, but they've been very supportive of my life as an artist and are very happy for me. My dad has bodypainted one of the human motorcycles with me before, which was a special experience.
Q: How big is the Bodypaint community? How many artists do this?
Trina: This is a legitimate art medium and there are many artists around the world. However I'd say there's around half a dozen artists or less doing what I specifically do- I am a specialist.
Q: What is your dream project?
I’d like to paint alongside indigenous bodypainters- me in my style and them in their style- and juxtapose them together in a photograph to pose questions about what is contemporary art. I've begun this series on Easter Island and am working on doing it on other continents.
Question: What is the best thing that I love about my work?
Trina: I love that my art has a breath, a heartbeat, & a twinkle in the eye. It has a special human connection that other art forms struggle to accomplish.
Q: What is my idea of perfect happiness?
Trina: A challenging question, as happiness is an emotion that happens in small bursting moments & perfection is impossible. I enjoy messy intimacy and awe-inspiring adventures- those fill my heart with prolonged happiness.
Q: What is my greatest fear?
Trina: Dying before fully expressing to people I am close to how much they mean to me.
Q: What is the trait that I most deplore in myself?
Trina: I'm a very honest person and I challenge others to reach their full potential. Sometimes this comes off as aggressive or intimidating- but I continue on because I need to be honest, true to myself and help others grow and be successful, even if it makes them uncomfortable. Also, like many New Yorkers, sometimes I have temper flare-ups that pass quickly- not my favorite trait, but it happens.
Q: Which living persons in my profession do I most admire?
Trina: Liu Bolin, Alexa Meade, Emma Cammack, Emma Hack, Riina Laine, Craig Tracy, Yayoi Kusama, Scott & Madeline Fray… so many amazingly talented friends using the body as a surface.
Q: What is my greatest extravagance?
Trina: I have a teapot from Paris that will warm tea to the exact temperature for that type of tea.
Q: On what occasion would I lie?
Trina: Its super rare. Maybe to get out of serious trouble? I think I still would tell the truth though.
Q: What is the thing that I dislike the most in my work?
Trina: Collecting money from clients that are past due.
Q: When and where was I the happiest, in my work?
Trina: I’m honestly happy almost every day that I paint- especially if we are laughing, dancing together, or discussing amazing ideas. I don’t look at the past or the future but really enjoy the present to the fullest.
Q: If I could, what would I change about myself?
Trina: I wish I was a little bit taller…”
Q: What is my greatest achievement in work?
Trina: My natural ability to have others instantly trust me & I love the privilege of leading others.
Q: Where would I most like to live?
Trina: I really love my life in NYC. I could also see myself living in a little outside the City in nature, in London, Berlin or Japan (Tokyo or Kyoto) or even on Easter Island.
Q: What is my most treasured possession?
Trina: I need my laptop, camera, and phone to survive, but I think my most treasured possession is my Echo Dot. Voice First is really the tech wave of the future and I'm in love with its possibilities.
Q: What is my most marked characteristic?
Trina: I'm a woman of action- Talk less, make/do more.
Q: What is my most inspirational location, in my city?
Trina: There’s so many! Walking by the Hudson River, taking the Staten Island Ferry, walking through the Park… but my favorite is probably any place that gives me a bird's eye view of the city. We are so small and so are our stories and problems- seeing the larger picture and being grateful is crucial in Manhattan.
Q: What is my favorite place to eat and drink, in my city?
Trina: I love brunching with friends at this little vegan bakery in Brooklyn called “Clementine’s”.
Q: What books influenced my life and how?
Trina: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, America by Jean Baudrillard, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and White Noise by Don DeLillo have widely shaped the way I see the world.
Q: Who are my favorite writers?
Trina: I largely read autobiographies and some non-fiction at the moment. Some of my recent favs include Marina Abramovic, Yayoi Kusama and Gary Vee.
Q: You Only Die Once. What music would I listen on my last day?
Trina: Mozart for most of the day and Michael Jackson right before I die- I’d like to go out dancing.
Q: Who is my hero or heroine in fiction?
Trina: Alice in Wonderland.
Q: Who are my heroes and heroines in real life?
Trina: My models and my Dad.
Q: What role plays art in my life and work?
Trina: Art is life and life is art.
Q: What do the words "Passion Never Retires" mean to me?
Trina: Go hard til you die. I will never stop making art or deeply loving those closest to me.
Q: What kind of partnerships do you usually establish with marketers/ brands?
Trina: Yes, I do partner with some brands & selectively accept commissions. Most of the Artistic Directors concepts boil down to three interpretations for utilizing camouflage bodypaint (though there’s room for innovation): 1) drawing attention to marginalized or ignored people and causes 2) to illustrate a menacing threat lurking nearby 3) to show connectedness or "oneness" between an environment or object and a person 3) to create a dynamic, viral “WOW” factor visual or activation- for example as a lead magnet, branding or PR stunt. All are effective ways of utilizing camouflage body art.
I love helping brands to tell a story and helping other creatives to stand out- whether that’s winning awards or bringing them personal success. Ultimately, camouflage bodypaint is an innovative and dynamic tool that brings creativity and adventure back into the corporate conversation.