Archive for October, 2011

Obfuscation Begins at Home

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Triscuit Obfuscation is Robert Melee’s sixth solo show at Andrew Kreps Gallery, following a streak of group show cameos uptown and downtown.

Robert Melee, 2011

It’s a fabulous spectacle, despite the deceptively chastened beige that carpets the floor and blankets the walls.  We know that khakis pants conceal secrets; agreeable neutrality cannot hold; white-collar crime is most devastating.  “One should judge a man mainly from his depravities. Virtues can be faked. Depravities are real.” -Klaus Kinski*

Robert Melee, "Rite of Spring Mattress Unit" detail, 2011

The more important restraint is in Robert’s choice to give lots of air to the individual entries, resourcefully sculpting Andrew Kreps’ abundant square footage.  In Triscuit, Robert has expanded some signature elements and diminished others, while insistently driving his aggressive pathos and regulatory formalism into a dazzling performative space.  It’s a leap from his object-centric Unshamelessfulnessly of 2008.  His signature Bottlecap paintings – highly tempting commodities – are absent, though their namesake elements appear in person and in photographic periphery.  In these sculpture-painting hybrids, the bottlecaps are the defining medium, more so than the enamel that covers them.  But you have to get the bottlecaps, and in this sense, beer (or soda) consumption is the real medium, just as Ed Ruscha’s automobile was really the medium, because it wheeled him from one gas station to another.

Robert Melee, "Rite of Spring Mattress Unit," 2011

Likewise, and demonstrated here, Robert’s medium is domestic space, psychological and physical.  Like many of us, his biographically-rooted psychological spaces must have been demarcated with destabilizing incidents (something happened here), while the physical spaces were compartmentalized with furniture and walls (gotten at Sears?  A garage sale?).

The other side

In work yesterday and today, Robert redramatizes these spaces.  He regenerates physical landmarks through a limited range of sculptures that include singular, commonplace objects – a chair, an oven, a rotary phone – and their compound aggregates (families?) –  the Units.  These remind me of the suburban household “entertainment center” merged with the ubiquitous framed photo vignette.  Robert reanimates the psychological landmarks through his videos, events, and theatrical photos, the most notorious of which starred his mother voluntarily undergoing a demanding course of Melee in the director’s seat.

In Triscuit Obfuscation, we get the closest thing to a restaging of Robert’s youth home in New Jersey.  Other artists have rebuilt apartments in the gallery, studios in the gallery, and galleries in the gallery; Robert absorbs this convention and subsumes it to his mixed-media, marbleized, carnivalesque, and carnal aesthetic.

Robert Melee, "Rite of Spring Mattress Unit" detail, 2011

Robert Melee, Triscuit Obfuscation, 2011


From this home being resurrected, a small framed photo of a banister reveals the source of the sweeping intervention that violently cleaves into the gallery.  The gallery’s banister is purely symbolic, because anyone ascending the marbleized stairs will climb them more like bleachers in an amphitheatre.    The beveled door beneath the stairs, on the other hand, is functional, as it funnels us through “the cave,” a dark gauntlet of disturbing videos and structural lumber that welcome visitors into the show and into the multimedia Id of Triscuit Obfuscation.

Obfuscation Begins at Home

On one monitor, in Peep Hole, a desperate woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown hollers, then weeps, into her mobile phone, in some kind of bitter lover’s quarrel.  (This detached, diagnostic tone of describing a traumatic incident is exactly why the video is hard to watch.  Anyone with a heart feels at least a tiny urge to help, but we’re as trapped in our moment as she is in her hallway.)  In the neighboring Windowing, an imprudent, or more likely, exhibitionist, couple has sex near their window.  Robert is handing us a contemporary “primal scene,” before delivering us into his schematic, zoned, carpeted interior populated by episodic altars.

Robert Melee, "Process Unit," 2011

Process Unit, austere in its equilateral triangle profile while profligate in its primped decadence, seems to preserve litter from Last Night’s Party as Last Night’s Memorabilia.  Maybe someday they will be Last Generation’s Heirlooms.  For now, they are bottom- to mid-shelf liquors, bargain decorations,  and cups and glasses; all are mingled with photos and videos that stand in for tumultuous memories what happened after 2 a.m. or what could have happened, given sufficiently Dionysian company.

Obfuscation Begins at Home

Except what party coexists with such morbid drama as seen here?  Clock Her features a totemic figure with her hand frozen above her neck, as if hanging herself.  The grandfather clock beneath her is also frozen, the hands on its face locked into a frown.  Among the seeming bric-a-brac of Rite of Spring Mattress Unit, a sequence of framed photos of two dummies linked at the arm culminates as they leap (into the void?) from their upstairs window perch, like effigy Thelma and Louise, except instead of a car into a canyon, Robert’s dummies tumble onto a driveway.  We don’t see them land – or at least I didn’t – which reminds me of those dreams we all have of freefalling: urban legend says that if you land, then you’re really dead.

Robert Melee, "Clock Her," 2011

*Thanks to artist Kathy Garcia for finding that Kinski quote.

Are You Amplified to Rock? Yes.

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

From the opening of Keith Mayerson’s Horror Hospital Unplugged original art at Derek Eller Gallery:

Keith Mayerson peace-out


More on this later!

Daily Dose

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Happy anniversary to Jessica Hale!

One year ago, Jess began a daily drawing project.  The results are recorded on her blog, where one finds an eclectic drawing repertoire bubbling with hilarity, introspection, and vivacity.  The images, drawn from observation and imagination, are often topical, relating to current events.  Others are good-humored ruminations on the inevitable absurdity of daily life.  Jess illustrates one’s internal self-dialogue, our external coexistence, and the neverending recovery from local roots, via family and culture.

I had become an avid follower of the blog when Jess told me about it, and I’ve been waiting months for this interview on the occasion of her anniversary.

Jessica Hale is a 2005 alum of SVA’s MFA Illustration as Visual Essay program.

MB: The art on your blog includes exquisite renderings of public figures, such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Warren Buffett.  You also do restrained brush drawings of imaginary figures.  And your iPhone Brush drawings include atmospheric and solemn city scenes, landscapes, and portraits.  Has one technique become your favorite?  If so, is it because it works for the blog format?

JH: Yes – I think the blog format and the time constraint of working 40 hours a week has played a role in simplifying the images, and prompted a natural selection of technique choices.  – I had little brush pen experience before this blog endeavor, and now this is my favorite way of making images. I used to draw like I was hermetically sealing each line (so much preciousness).  Honestly, this would make me  a little ill if I tried that today.  This project has made me let go a little, relax.  I also love using pencil and paper, reducing with eraser.  I love the Brushes application on the iPhone, but find myself frustrated that the images are too small for large format printing.

MB: The French painter and teacher Ingres wrote, “One must keep right on drawing; draw with your eyes when you cannot draw with a pencil. As long as you do not hold a balance between your seeing of things and your execution, you will do nothing that is really good.”  Would you draw more if you could?  Or is the daily “dose” enough for you?

JH: When I lived in Mexico, I struggled to learn how to speak Spanish.  I went there thinking, “No problema!” then realized that I’m not really an audio learner.  Eventually I did learn, but only by thinking, dreaming, mumbling in Spanish.  So, in the context of drawing, I experience more technical fluidity when I’ve made the conscious choice to live in the total immersion zone: seeing and thinking about everything in the context of value, scale, proportion.  It’s a fun exercise to visualize objects and pretend to draw them in my mind.

MB: Several of the blog entries are about hair.  There’s the field guide to ponytails, the index of bangs, the recurring beehive, and the waterfall coiffure of the Bride of Frankenstein.  Does hair invoke a special narrative for you?  Is it a window to creativity, the way eyes are a window to the soul?  Is it essential to identity, as Lady Gaga has recently imagined it?

JH: Hair was a big ritual growing up.  I watched my mother and sister get up an hour early in the morning to blow dry,  plug in the hot curlers, heat up the curling iron – spray spray spray that Paul Mitchell Freeze & Shine.  I think hair can be testimony to a person’s priorities, or how well a person takes care of themselves.  I don’t know if it’s ‘essential’ to identity.  If my hair falls out, I still have an identity (I would hope) but I think it can be another manifestation of self perception.  This is what I find interesting: the choices people make with their hair.  The cut, the style – it’s another Rorschach test that I don’t know how to read, but I like it.   The real truth: hair is fun to draw.

MB: PETA commemorated Steve Jobs for his vegetarian commitment, his animal-loving Pixar films, and his iPhoto software that recognized cat faces as well as human faces.  Your blog includes pet cats and dogs, along with “wild” mice, rats, and squirrels.  Does the blog have a spirit animal?  Do you have a pet?  What do animals mean to you?

JH: If the blog had an animal spirit, it would be a pigeon with a hair extension wrapped around its leg: Still able to fly, but not without a little baggage – and determined to survive one more day.  I am allergic to anything with too much hair, but I love anthropomorphizing anything with a social stigma attached, such as rats, mice, poisonous spiders, cockroaches, pigeons, larvae, etc.   This is something new – spawned from the blog, if you will.

MB: You remarked on your blog that starting the blog was your substitute for getting married on your fantasy calendar date, 10/10/10.  You’ve also marked the monthly anniversaries of the blog with cartoons of pregnancy and birth.  So a blog that could have been a mate seems to have become a baby.  Do you agree?  And did you foresee this “incarnation” of your blog?

JH: Note to higher self: Don’t hit “publish” until you’re absolutely sure you want people to use it in an interview one year later!  Yes – the baby was a running metaphor for the blog.  I’m not sure how I feel about drawing another one.  How over-disclosing could I possibly be?

MB: But that disclosure is partly what makes your daily blog format so enticing.  You can say things that people might resist hearing in person, say, at a dinner party.  On the blog, you throw it out there, and we receive it via our computers, usually in private.  Not all of the posts are “confessional,” but when they are, it’s a relief – for me, anyway, to see how someone else shares some of the same neuroses that I do.  Does it feel therapeutic to you, to share private worries?  Or is it banal in the age of online transparency through Facebook?  Do you really ever regret any of the posts?  You could easily delete or revisit any one of them, but you haven’t.

JH: Physical therapy feels therapeutic; posting words and images that are highly personal feels illegal!  I remember the message I heard in undergrad was “NEVER use text in your drawings or paintings.  -And don’t make it too personal. Keep the focus on formal elements.”  (Or something like that.)  Anyway, these were rules I tried to stick with.  Since then, the internet has happened.  Facebook happened.  A prison sentence might have been the only way to escape the kind of influence social media has had on my image making.  Sometimes the “confessional” leads to widespread identification, and sometimes to a collective head scratch followed by the sound of crickets.   And so, yes – I do regret certain posts, but I see the importance of letting go of what people think.  It’s a serial killer of creativity.

MB: How do you know that people are following your blog?  Do you use a tracker in WordPress?

JH: I use a Google analytic tracker so I can count the number of visitors.

MB: Does the number of hits motivate you?  Does a “dip” in hits discourage you?

JH: What are you, a psychotherapist? (Interviewee rustles in her seat, smacking gum, rolling eyes and twirling hair)  I don’t check the page visits everyday, if that’s what you’re wondering!  Seriously, that would drive me nuts.  For the same reason I don’t have a scale in my bathroom.  I’m a little obsessive! But I do appreciate knowing that I’m not doing this solely for myself.

MB: Do you identify as a “cartoonist?” Is this important?

JH: Yes, I would say I’m a cartoonist.  I don’t know if it’s important.   I could keep on denying it, but eventually it was bound to come out, way out.  The blog was a coming out party, I guess.   “Mom, Dad.. there’s something I need to tell you…”