Mel Chin

It is from the Duchampian model—the subversion of “retinal” esthetics and the fondness for puns, assisted ready-mades, and chance operations—that Mel Chin seems to derive much of the creative energy for his art. Given his sharply intelligent eclecticism, however, one expects and finds other sources, such as Renaissance figuration and classical myth, being tapped by an unpredictable and fluid imagination.

The first section of Chin’s recent exhibition of 90 works dating from 1974 to 1985 was dominated by “Myrrha,” the mythic theme that in its final form was realized as a monumental sculpture, Myrrha P.I.A., 1985, commissioned for New York’s Bryant Park. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses Myrrha is a quasi-Oedipal character who, in the guise of another woman, enters into an incestuous relationship with her father. She becomes pregnant; penitent, she begs the gods to protect her from her father’s reprisal and is metamorphosed into a tree, the myrrh, which later splits to reveal the infant Adonis inside.

Chin first used the figure of Myrrha in a small, somewhat cursively drawn etching of 1975; there, seated on a large cube in a semiopen landscape, she hides her face dramatically with her left arm, exactly as she does 10 years later in the Bryant Park piece. A significant bifurcation of this motif occurred in the late ’70s. The landscape itself, defined by a tower and two palms, became the independent subject of a group of works that culminated in a large, foreboding diptypch (untitled, 1981–82), an encaustic painting in which the absent female nude was replaced rather provocatively by a sinkhole. In similar fashion, Myrrha and her gesture of shame became a discrete image explored in a series of detailed skeletal studies—in effect, a kind of interiorized landscaping.

Chin has said that Myrrha P.I.A. is about “flesh and death”; if so, it is an uneasy collusion of the two that he ultimately employed as an expressive strategy That is, in making the sculpture’s fiberglass skeleton visible beneath a flesh of perforated steel, he has transformed the traditional theme of death and the maiden into death within the maiden. We say “uneasy” because Chin has hung his intention on played-out signs (skeleton = death, maiden = flesh), whereas the work itself might better be understood as a remarkably effective fusion of anatomical, representational, and industrial structures. The mythological status of Myrrha, meanwhile, is left unclear, as is the title’s cryptic reference to the post-industrial age (P.I.A.).

The “Modus Operandi” of the exhibition’s title, on the other hand, seemed clearly to indicate Chin’s working philosophy of materials as elemental substance. For him, material and idea are and must be unitary; however, what distinguishes him from a formalist is not simply a potentially unlimited range of materials but, more importantly the absence of any burden of autocratic, transcendental purism. Vertical Palette, 1978–85, with its hierarchy of earth, smoke, water, wood, and lead encased in glass bottles, appears emblematic of an attitude that is essentially Duchampian. (Chin is also the only artist to our knowledge to have reclaimed sheetrock dust, an environmentally hazardous material, as a creative medium.)

Chin’s work long ago earned the respect of his colleagues in Houston. And so when the exhibition’s organizers stated, “A comprehensive look at Mel Chin’s work is overdue,” we could only add, “Indeed.”

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom