Mel Chin

Like the material Mel Chin employed in his recent works—mud and mahogany, olive wood and Hebron marble, dirt from a Minneapolis landfill and African grass—his conceptual perspective dances between the lyrical and the mundane, into a realm where the global and the personal dovetail. Marked by the complex symbolism viewers have come to expect from this multimedia conceptualist, Chin’s recent sculptures are sensual, romantic takes on geopolitical strife and cultural dissonance. Rather than adopt conventional historical perspectives, these works frame alternative views that are simultaneously lyrical and instructive. Chin’s seductive propaganda—a language of resonant and often indigenous materials and objects, including stylized musical instruments, weapons, and classical iconography—suffuses narrative conceptions of places, times, and events with poeticism. Exalting both the pleasure and necessity of historical revisionism, Chin struggles to forge meaningful links between metaphor and the prosaic realities of contemporary existence.

Pieces like The Sigh of the True Cross, 1988, seem to fall largely in formal line with Chin’s previous, less strictly topical efforts. Its shapes are explored for symbolic power, and the details of its construction are full of sly allusion and interpretive multiplicity. Like most large sculptural presentations, the work features the interrelation of strong objects composed of elements that interlock like formal and symbolic jigsaw puzzle pieces. The stylized Ethiopian masinqo, or spike fiddle, in The Sigh is strung with bull’s gut and woven teff grass to symbolize the beef and teff stew traditionally eaten during the Coptic-Christian festival of Mescal, the celebration of the Sign of the True Cross. Its scythelike body and mallet-shaped tuning peg evoke the hammer and sickle emblem of the Marxist faction within Ethiopia, and its interior edge is chipped to trace the outline of the nation’s borders—all of which gives body to the memory of the expulsion of the Red Cross (for supplying food and medical aid to areas under Eritrean rebel control) from that drought-stricken country by the ruling Mengistu Haile-Mariam regime in 1988.

This intensive layering of resonant form also animates The Opera of Silence, 1988. In this work, an oversized replica of a Beijing Opera drum, its hoghide covering sewn into the shape of the CdA crest and smeared with white theatrical makeup (which, in the opera’s symbology, signifies treachery), is propped up like an animal snare waiting to entrap those who grab for the obvious interpretive bait. This work constitutes a comment about American involvement in the 1959 Tibetan uprising, which was crushed by the Chinese Army. It’s not enough that the sculpture be meaningful or even formally engaging. For Chin, it must at least temporarily “trap” the viewer so that it can educate, stimulate, and persuade—so that it can effectively play into the electric flow of actual experience.

Chin’s current interest in environmental issues is also explored. Landscape, 1990, is a room-sized installation built for this show. Three landscape paintings, in Chinese, Persian, and American styles, decorate the walls of the enclosed space. Hung several inches above the floor, they create a gap from which local landfill dirt seems to seep. This work weighs the legacy of cultural products tied to the land against the realities of environmental ravage.

Revival Field, represented here by a maquette and a set of delicate botanical studies, recently came to prominence for being rejected for a grant by NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer, after receiving support from both the peer panel and the National Council. The concept for this sculpture is straight- forward: toxically contaminated land is squared off, and plants known as “hyperaccumulators” are placed in a circle within the square. The plants cleanse the land within by drawing off the toxins through their natural respiratory processes. Though these botanical reclaimants are new tools for Chin, his subject matter remains largely unchanged. Chin’s relationship to the landscape—his efforts to reshape conceptions of places and events—has exceeded the metaphorical. His synthesis of art, history, and science changes not only the viewer’s conception of life on earth but ultimately also the earth itself.

Jeffrey Kastner

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