San Francisco

Jim Melchert

Anglim Gilbert Gallery

For over twenty years, veteran Bay Area conceptualist Jim Melchert has been experimenting with ceramic tile—specifically, with what happens when he breaks it into pieces by dropping it onto a hard surface. The wall works that result from these investigations consist of the reassembled shards of one or more large floor tiles, patterned with drawn or painted marks. But Melchert is interested in something other than the accidental beauty of the skeins of spidery lines created when the brittle object shatters. Instead, in a slightly perverse exploration of “truth to materials,” he focuses on what these lines reveal about the intrinsic composition of the clay itself.

Commercially manufactured tiles may seem identical and uniform, but on a microscopic level they are quite different. Clay’s molecular structure consists of tiny plates that either stack neatly on top of each other to create a bond or form a more jumbled, weaker arrangement. Like all ceramic objects, tiles break according to the specific distribution of these strengths and weaknesses. In the works shown here, Melchert used various systems to foreground the visual information exposed by his Zen-like experiments. North Atlantic (Phoenix Series II), 2005, is a grid of twenty reassembled square tiles, four wide and five high, measuring an imposing eight-and-a-half by six feet. Each tile’s shards have been painted separately with one-inch-wide stripes of dark blue glaze, spaced one inch apart. These stripes, running parallel to the shard’s longest side, suggest ripples emanating from a pebble dropped into a pond or isobars on a weather map. The effect of stripes meeting stripes at every possible angle is hypnotic but unrelenting, leaving no place for the eye to rest. Similarly, in another large multi-tile composition, Feathers of the Phoenix (Red), 2004, the density of the patterning threatens to induce dizziness. Here, the motif painted on each shard is a stylized image of a feather’s striations, compressed or expanded depending on the size of the piece, and the slightly curving chevron patterns created generate the optical illusion of an uneven surface.

By comparison, the “Eye Sites” series (2005), verges on the austere. A thick diagonal line of either graphite or glaze leads from the acute, knife-sharp points of selected shards into those fragments’ broadest expanses. As is frequently the case with Melchert, the punning title offers multiple readings. Perhaps the line’s function is to lead the viewer to a visual resting place (a site for sore eyes)? Each line is also the same shape as the letter I. The edges of the graphite marks have a ghostlike softness, as if rubbed deep into the tile’s surface, reminding us that the cracks they lie between constitute a kind of drawing too. But throughout a long and varied career shaped by administrative as well as artistic responsibilities, Melchert has always made time for drawing of one kind or another.

The works in this show, which suggest antecedents ranging from sixteenth-century Japanese potters to Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and Sol LeWitt, also invoke an important truth: One may emerge “Phoenix”-like from the fire at any age, with work that not only looks good on the surface but has something compelling to say about the secrets that lie within.

Maria Porges