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Still Life with Live Nude Girls

Erotic photos that aren’t erotic photos, taken by a photographer who isn’t a photographer.


Is Merkley an objectifier? Yes, he says, but not of women.

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Appropriately for an artist who likes to append his signature with three question marks, the man born David Sean Merkley (aka Merkley or, better yet, Merkley???) has a big secret. Splayed across a recliner inside the tumbledown Oak Street chateau in which he both lives and rents by the night on Airbnb, he admits that his eye-catching, super-saturated photo portraits of statuesque nude women aren’t really portraits of nude women. “They’re about the sofas and the lamps,” he says.

Viewed one after the other by the hundreds, the cavalcade of nudes that Merkley has displayed in galleries, published in books, and posted for thousands of social media followers does indeed begin to blur into an ur-nude. It’s the other stuff that the artist has purposefully arranged throughout his tableaus—the eerily symmetrical lamp pairings, sofas, bottles of beer, musical instruments, dog-eared books, dogs eating pizza, and occasional tastefully airborne pet—that really leaves an impression. “I’m going for photographs where you have a nude person in the middle distracting from everything else,” he says. The fun, for Merkley, is in scouring a model’s home or apartment to find what to incongruously drop into the frame to make you forget about the naked person in the middle of it all. “It’s almost like a competition,” he says. “I am competing against the nude. Can I make this interesting?”

“Yeah,” continues Merkley from behind a reddish-brown beard that’s as thick as a rhododendron bush, “that’s the big secret.”

It’s dark in here, but you can tell Merkley is smiling now that his secret is out. And you can tell that he lives inside his own competitive tableau, all of the assembled objects making their own case for interestingness. He’s got flashlights on the frames of his eyeglasses and a full-size fork and spoon dangling on a silver chain around his neck (no knife, though; they don’t let you on a plane with knife necklaces). Glancing around the dimly lit antechamber, there’s not much in here that’s not used or very used. Merkley, 48, has, for aesthetic reasons, amassed an entire wall of bakelite analog clock radios, likely from garage sales or curbside salvage operations—“If everyone pays top dollar for something, I don’t fucking want it.” In a rare splurge purchase of something new, Merkley hired a seamstress in Vietnam to craft him 31 outfits, one for every day of the month, thereby forever vanquishing the question “What should I wear today?” He invariably resembles a 1970s country musician—and, as if on cue, a photo of a very shaggy, white-polyester-suited David Allan Coe materializes on the screen of Merkley’s TV, which is playing Pandora. The two could be stunt doubles.

Just as his photographs of nude women (or, less often, provocatively clad men) aren’t portraits of nude women, Merkley insists that he’s not an “erotic” photographer. “I don’t think I’m erotic at all! I’m not going for titillation,” he says. His work, while certainly concerned with sexy bodies, objectification, and the male gaze, isn’t attempting to be sexual. In fact, he’s not even trying to be a photographer in the first place, he says; he’s just a guy with a low-end digital camera, or a painter “who cheats by using a camera” and copious hours of Photoshop. “I end up spending about as much time as I would if I painted them,” he says.

“Merkley is a phenomenal painter,” says Micah LeBrun, the curator of 111 Minna gallery, which has shown multiple exhibits of his photographic work over the past decade. “He just hasn’t produced paintings in quite a while." 

However you want to describe him, what Merkley inarguably is is a weirdo and an eccentric. He’s the locally famous dude whom art scenesters dress up as on Halloween as an in-joke; the whimsical scamp who looks like a self-described “homeless oil tycoon” and who’s able to scrape together enough dough from his side endeavors to subsidize his art. He’s the guy who arrived in San Francisco to escape the white-bread-and-mayonnaise realms of just about anywhere else—a creature who once roamed this city far and wide like bison on the Great Plains, only to be reduced to an outlier teetering on the verge of extinction today.

Dave Merkley
was born in 1967 into a blended Salt Lake City Mormon family that eventually topped out at 18 siblings. There was no bigamy involved, only serial monogamy; both of Merkley’s parents were married and divorced multiple times, and by the time his mother was 33, she had 10 children or stepchildren transforming her home into a perpetual summer camp. (That is a lot of white bread and mayonnaise.)

Growing up, Merkley fancied himself a rebel, and, since his older stepbrothers were partying, going to disco clubs, and smoking pot, his brand of rebellion was to be a straight-arrow Mormon, serve a mission in São Paulo, and, he says, induct nearly 100 Brazilians into the Church of Latter-day Saints. Merkley’s message to these 100-odd converts today: “Oops!” 

Back then, however, as a “zone leader,” he devised the strategy of proselytizing the most respected guys in a neighborhood or the head of a household. And “then he does the rest of the work for you.”

This approach would later serve him as an artist as well. Out in 2006 with a “life-of-the-party-type” friend with a penchant for disrobing, he ended up shooting what would be the first of so many attractive-nude-lady-on-a-couch photos. And then, Mormon missionary style, he let his models do the rest of the work for him, rounding up other photo subjects (who in turn rounded up other photo subjects) and planting the idea for a book of such photos, which Merkley published in 2008. It was titled 111??? and the photos of lamps and couches—and 111 women—within were shown, not coincidentally, at 111 Minna.

In the ensuing years, Merkley has taken thousands of photos and disseminated them on the Internet (he’s not thrilled that his stuff gets flagged as porn on Facebook sites), written songs with friends like Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s, Roger Rocha of 4 Non Blondes, and Mark Stoermer of the Killers, and completed—and then killed—a book project of surreal images based upon his dreams and the dreams of his photo subjects. (Sample shot: A nude model with a green wig stands in front of Candlestick Park alongside a Great Dane in a tutu, a pot of decaf coffee, a boom box, and a large KFC sign reading “Kentucky Fried Mormons.”)

Asked where Merkley fits in the ever-evolving world of San Francisco art, LeBrun waves off the question. “Merkley’s not trying to fit into anything. That’s one of his mantras,” says the gallerist. “If you told him to fit in a group he’d probably step out of it pretty quickly.”

An artist whose
stock in trade is photographs of naked women will, invariably, raise hackles, particularly at a time when social media amplifies criticism to deafening levels. “It’s not uncommon when we host a show for Merkley, it can be a strain on our other business facets and our brand,” admits LeBrun. “It divides those who recognize it as simply art from other people who go beyond and see it as pornography.” LeBrun is all for challenging people. But not everyone. When corporate clients complain, he continues, he has obscured “certain portions” of Merkley’s work with curtains or lighting. But “a lot of art is provocative and is created to challenge and develop the social narrative.”

Nude photo portraiture invariably evokes comparisons to the work of Terry Richardson, one of the nation’s best-known photographers—and, also, an accused harasser who once published an entire book of women fellating him, which he described as “my life’s work.” Unlike Richardson, Merkley says he’s not out to capture “that sexually creepy moment.” Merkley’s art, he assures, is not a ploy to fool women into disrobing.

It has not been a ploy to remain solvent, either. Merkley doesn’t bank a lot of money from his art, in large part because he doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to do so. The album cover he shot for the Lower Haight DJ Romanowski was done for barter. (“Making art for a client sucks,” sums up Merkley. “Even when it’s good, it sucks.”) He can afford to trade art for, say, bakelite analog clock radios—or kill book projects at the 11th hour or display his work primarily on the Internet or make noncommercial music with his famous friends—because of the tumbledown chateau that we’re sitting in. Merkley bought it, complete with four tenants and the room he now flogs on Airbnb as the “Ugliest Dump in the World,” on his 30th birthday in 1997 for $383,000. He did so on the cusp of a real estate boom, having amassed enough capital via buying and selling properties in his native Utah.

As such, Merkley is both a new sort of San Franciscan and an old one. He lives in a home he could never dream to buy in the present and that provides him with the income he requires to pursue his creative endeavors. But at the same time he embraces the technological developments (Flickr, Twitter) made possible by the arrivistes flooding this city and pricing his artist peers out. He bemoans the old-school San Franciscans lamenting days gone by, artists lamenting a forced move to Oakland (What’s the problem? he muses—“Oakland is fantastic!”), and tenants lamenting the cannibalization of housing stock via Airbnb. A statuesque Australian family who apparently arrived at Merkley’s Airbnb room via Mount Olympus wander through during our chat. One week later, according to city records, Merkley was hit with complaints of failing to register his unit with the city.

Change is inexorably coming, warns this eccentric vestige of another time. And as for the city’s affluent newcomers, he’s wholeheartedly sanguine. “They’re just kids, most of them,” he says. “They want to be influenced. Bring them to places you think are cool. Let their money support it. If you bring out your no-welcome map, trust me, they’ll find a way to destroy it. You’ve got to find a way to convert them.”

Merkley smiles again. He is, it seems, still the missionary. Merkley’s personal appearance, he admits, is something of a forced icebreaker for these ever-changing neighbors: “If you look like a clown, people approach you.” But instead of converting people into a religion he no longer believes in, he’s now hoping to convert people into appreciating a city—a city that, once upon a time, nurtured his weird-ass self.

After the completion of this story and prior to its publication, Merkley dropped us a line. In a phone message, he told us "I'm getting the fuck out of San Francisco." The issue: that city-imposed violation due to his Airbnb unit. "They won't let me do what I want to do.... I am fucking tired of it! Though, I'm happy to say this about you: You are a very nice man." We feel the same way and we're sorry to, it seems, be on the verge of losing Merkley.  

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