Truls Melin

Lars Bohman Gallery

At lunch with Truls Melin the week his new exhibition opened, we talked about his seven months in a mental institution, how he got there, and the exhibitions he has made since. This was his twelfth. The figurines were in his familiar ingenuous style; he describes them as “drunken” sailors. Togged up in naval uniforms, each statuette was slotted into a maze of steel conduits, and with all the shutdown valves interspersed throughout the piping, the allusion to the claustrophobic quarters of submarines was obvious. The structures and figures were uniformly painted in that cool green color proven to be calming yet gently energizing in places like subs, surgeries, and insane asylums where, in a heartbeat, things can go from numbing routine to hair on fire, fangs out. Metaphorically out of their depth and under the influence, the doomed seamen are consigned to an absurdly hermetic, commotion-free, schematic setting where order never comes second. It is an allegorical map of recirculating redundancies calculated to keep sensation to a minimum while foreclosing any hope of parole. The sailors are locked down in a soothing incubator for madness. Asked if his episode in the hospital affected his work, Melin answered, after a prolonged, pondering silence, “I don’t know.”

It’s not purely phantasm with Melin. He’d been struck by the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in the Barents Sea four years ago. But undersea craft have been important to him since the age of ten, when he photographed his own customized sub and ship models in a puddle of rainwater near his home in Malmö. He found those photographs in his parents’ basement in 2000 and reprinted them; they hung in the back room of the gallery. Throughout his career, Melin has made up his idiosyncratic macroworld as if using toys from the attic. As with artists like Paul Thek, Bruce Nauman, Chris Burden, and Mike Kelley, his work raises the question as to whether it emulates fanaticism or just is fanatical.

It was William Burroughs who said that a schizophrenic is the person who has realized what’s really going on. Melin’s work sits comfortably next to that sentiment; he has always behaved as if outfitted with a pair of X-ray eyes that permit him insight into the fantastic inner workings below the surface of appearances. His lifelong fascination with submarines finds its most acute form in this exhibition; he has skinned the boats to see what’s beneath what’s beneath. His fondness for the process of peeling back, his contagious curiosity, infuses his art with an air of uncomplicated enchantment. Melin is helpless to resist seeking the answer to what’s down there—whether in make-believe submarines or his own inner life. But when his skinning continues unchecked, fondness becomes tenacity, and tenacity mulishness, and then you are but a step away from the fanatical in Melin’s art. He admits having suffered “psychotic feelings” during a repeated viewing of Stan Douglas’s video installation Der Sandmann, 1995, a slowly circulating double projection—“a deeply schizophrenic experience,” said some critics—based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book of the same title. As a result, he entered the hospital that year. Like Zeno’s paradox gone amok or the child’s rhyming riddle “Pete and Repeat” caught in nauseating repetition, his sculptures can become unnerving. Things slip from fascinating to mesmerizing to obsessive, even menacing in this exhibition, without the slightest warning, and that seems to be the way Melin sees things.

Ronald Jones