Posts Tagged ‘John Mendelsohn’

A Dozen Surprises

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

Through his career of over 20 years, Robert Melee has famously combined objects, performances, and environments that he augments with his signature, and often disfiguring, Midas touch.  Central to this oeuvre are his photographs, but this fact might not have been obvious before a dozen roses, his new solo show at Higher Pictures.


Robert Melee, “Facelift,” 1997 (l), “Penthouse,” 2002 (r)

In most of their prior appearances, Robert’s photographs have been integrated into his excellent “Units.”  In those compartmentalized, multi-media structures, Robert’s photos are almost indiscriminately crammed together with videos, party decorations, bric-a-brac, and disposable goods.  In this visual forcefeeding, the photos can get subsumed into the swirling marbleized surfaces and rigid planar geometries of the hosting Unit.  They remain within, unlike Freudian slips.

Yet, on a closer look, the photographs decode valuable scripts written through our Melee-ology.  Collected together, they are like a Rosetta Stone.  They are capsules of Robert’s performative values, which include bare flesh, movement, fetish, and unflinching sexuality.  One individual emerges as their champion.  The undisputed queen of Melee-mania is his mother, Rose.  “Mommy” is the star and muse of Robert’s suburban glamour, and of this selection of photos from his photographic catalog.

Most of these shoots with Mommy have been spontaneous: Robert visited her in New Jersey, the tempo quickened, and Robert whipped out his camera.  He styled her and arranged props and lighting.  He gently directed her, but Mommy seized the moment and improvised her role.  From looking alone, we don’t know enough about what these shoots have meant to Robert and Mommy, so we can’t comment on the power dynamics.*


Robert Melee, “Kitchen Table,” 1998 (l), “On the Road,” 1993 (r)

Indeed, if we didn’t know the story, would we guess that she is the artist’s mother?  The woman in these photos is mercurial, vivacious, clownish, and licentious.  Those qualities suit a cabaret performer or movie star.  But a mother?  Aren’t we culturally conditioned to seek other signs of motherhood, even for an adult son?  There are fictional precedents for all kinds of outrageous, discordant, or even villainous mothers: Norma Bates in Psycho, Eleanor Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate, Babs Johnson in Pink Flamingos, Livia Soprano in The Sopranos.  But for artistic glimpses of real-life mothers of adult sons, many of us are accustomed to being fed mothers with domestically acclimated postures, tempered gazes, perseverance, and quiet dignity, despite the rocky pluralism of actual mothers.**

What drives these photos, among other things, is how we see Robert’s mother perform and behave in ways we don’t ascribe to mothers, and that is a chance to ask ourselves when our own mothers surprised us by stepping out from behind their motherly veils.  Whose mother hasn’t ruptured the patterns of motherhood with an unexpected opinion, outburst, or act, or even an unprecedented habit?  And maybe those surprises aren’t as extreme as Mommy’s misadventures, but is extreme degree the only difference?

*John Mendelsohn interprets Robert’s work with his mother as reenactment.  He writes of Robert’s Mommy videos, and I see no reason to exclude Robert’s photographs here: “These ‘home movies’ were in a sense caricatured portraits of a fraught relationship performed as farce or psychodrama.” Sculpture Magazine, November 2010

**Luckily, Richard Billingham, Leigh Ledare, and other demographically comparable artists have helped to diversify this field of imagery.