New York

Mel Chin

Loughelton Gallery

It might take volumes to explicate Mel Chin’s ambitious installation “The Operation of the Sun Through the Cult of the Hand,” 1987—to explain all the careful details and their symbolic and associative significance. Although such an investigation would be justified by Chin’s complex network of references, much of the poetry of his art would be lost in the translation. The installation consisted of nine works, named after the nine planets, that represent a distillation of myriad Eastern and Western concepts spanning centuries of religious, scientific, and cultural history. Chin has delved into the body of knowledge that has arisen out of humanity’s ever-changing relationship with the cosmos and, bringing together ideas that he has gathered in the course of his explorations, created an inspired synthesis.

The installation, inasmuch as it represents any one thing, is about the nine planetary bodies that orbit our sun, symbolic bodies upon which Chin has embroidered a complicated lexicon of alchemical, scientific, and mythic properties. Each sculpture has been given a subtitle that encapsulates some of his ideas about the cosmological significance of the planet after which it is named—for example, Venus: Conjunction and Entrapment, or Pluto: Projection and Permutation. These celestial figures, then, are more than the primary points that map our solar system; they are the Gods, the Elements, archetypal mythic entities around which so many of our legends have been spun. Chin embedded eight of his nine sculptures in a specially built, curved gallery wall, positioning them in relation to each other according to the orbital distance and tilt of the planets they “represent.” Although some of these pieces weigh several hundred pounds each, they appeared to float in the white space of the wall’s surface.

The inscrutability, if it can be called that, of Chin’s art is like a puzzle whose pieces are packed together so tightly that they buckle and finally implode—content piled upon itself. So compact is each unit that its multidimensionality is not at first apparent. But nothing is arbitrary here. It has all been thought and rethought into a profound convergence of meaning that, despite appearances, is expansive rather than reductive. Chin mines for more than just meaningful coincidences; he digs into the anatomy, astronomy, archeology, anthropology, etymology, biology, mineralogy, metallurgy, mythology, and psychology to find the metaphoric roots of our cultural authority. His choices are made as an artist, be they about a symbol, an inlaid pattern, or a material and, like many of Marcel Duchamp’s conceits, are meant to reflect the confluence of physical energy (“operation”) and metaphysical spirit (“cult”). In Chin’s work this is associated with transmutation, and ultimately his tireless duties as artisan, scientist, and artist are inspired by the model of the alchemist. For these nine works, he used a total of 70 different materials including black gorgonian fan coral, hemp, fungus, and numerous metals, oxides, sulfates, nitrates, and the like. Whatever meanings Chin forged into his esthetic foundry, they are, like the revolutions of the planets or the creation of myths, multiple, interconnected, fixed yet forever moving. This contemporary alchemist makes art that is not simply about process but that embodies process itself.

Carlo McCormick