New York

Mel Kendrick

John Weber Gallery

The fascination with wood grain has a long Modernist history, from Paul Gauguin and Edvard Munch through Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque to Max Ernst and André Masson. Mel Kendrick’s woodblock “relief” drawings (all 1993) are a remarkable contribution to that history, reaffirming one’s sense of the medium as a liminal matrix of visual meaning. More particularly, wood grain signifies the organic—earthy, bodily—root of the creative process. Its appearance is uncanny: it looks irregular, random, and unintelligible, yet also fraught with profound meaning. In fact, it is a precise, decipherable record of the vicissitudes of growth. Like the lines on a seismograph, it registers the truth of an inner movement. For Kendrick to reaffirm this “primitive” symbol of process—of eccentric yet exact expression—is for him to rebel against the post-Modern idea of art as the discourse of seemingly self-manipulating codes. But it is also, paradoxically, an acknowledgement that wood grain has in fact become a historical code—a standard language of the mysteriously prelinguistic (sometimes misread as a groping toward language). Kendrick in effect quotes wood grain as much as he uses its “originality,” unwittingly suggesting a deeper, more decadent post-Modern truth: that all languages are peculiarly “postlinguistic,” that is, they are like Latin—they come alive when they are quoted, but are of interest only for the patina their form gives discourse, not for what they communicate.

Eccentric shapes form very flat figures on the ground of the wood grain like scrambled quotations of parts of Kendrick’s three-dimensional, abstract wood constructions. This is the case particularly in 3 Plates and F, but is also implicit in 5 Slits and 10 Loops Slit, where the forms suggest the carving/cutting process of working in wood rather than the resulting shapes. The effect is not unlike that of Marcel Duchamp’s Tu M’, 1918, a kind of inventory of his works (mostly ready-mades), which exist here in the quasi-nostalgic form of shadows—that is, in the ambiguous space of the living past. Indeed, Kendrick’s Split Spiral reduces it to a famous Modernist emblem, the target (a kind of grid manqué), treated as a ghost of itself. Moreover, Kendrick’s double take of the spiral indicates the horns of the dilemma he is stuck on: on one side we have a “post-Modernized” target—a quotation shadowing the remote, even unreachable goal—and on the other side a cross section of the body, more particularly, a kind of CAT scan of the pelvic bone, a “Modernistic” revelation of primitive bodily structure. Trapped between a longing for the old Modern primordiality and a post-Modern sense of déjà vu, Kendrick reveals our true artistic condition.

Donald Kuspit