New York

Robert Melee

Channeling the spirits of Jackson Pollock and Martha Stewart, so he claims, Robert Melee drips and spatters enamel onto a variety of surfaces, usually linoleum, but sometimes the naked body of his mother. One of the more interesting artists to emerge from “Greater New York 2005” at P. S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and “Make it Now” at SculptureCenter, Melee is best known for trashily glamorous installations. At P. S. 1, he built an entertainment center out of faux wood paneling and old television sets, each of which showed a different video. In one, Marbleization of Mommy, 2002, Melee is shown dripping paint onto his mother’s torso while wearing a respirator. Yes, it is weird, but the performance is executed in such a matter-of-fact way that it also seems strangely natural.

For his third solo show at Andrew Kreps Gallery, Melee persisted with his signature painting technique (referred to as “marbleizing”) but restricted his habitually multicolored palette to gray, black, and white. While this might have signaled a turn toward the subdued, especially since his mother was nowhere in sight, the artist’s distinctive brand of grotesquerie remained apparent in the show’s four paintings and four sculptures—the latter consisting of mannequins covered in thick layers of plaster and paint—on show here.

“The sleep of reason produces monsters,” Goya captioned one of his Caprichos, and Melee’s sculptures seem to be the results of exactly this state of repose. However, their simple, descriptive titles offer little in the way of further explanation: Him Down (all works 2005) is in the shape of a man lying prostrate with one arm outstretched, while Her, on knees shows a woman on all fours, her head bowed toward the ground. The lone epicene, It Up, looks like a small child sitting on the floor, while Him Up, a large Darth Vader–like figure, presided gloomily over the rest of the group. All were placed on a floor covered in wood-grain linoleum tiles, some of which were also marbleized to form an arresting, parquetlike design.

Do Melee’s figures form a family? It’s hard to resist such a conclusion, and the other works in the show further encourage the idea. Three of the paintings are canvases molded to resemble the kind of drapes you would find in a suburban tract house, and each appears to be pulled tightly shut over a window, as if to prevent nosy neighbors from peering inside. Two are covered with Op art–like vertical stripes, while the third is marbleized. The paintings don’t hold much interest on their own, but paired with the sculptures and floor they gave the gallery an intriguingly creepy ambience suggestive of an interior-decorating collaboration between the Addams Family and the Cleavers.

Melee is adept at playing up ambiguities, creating images that both amuse and startle, positioned as they are somewhere between campy comedy and the grotesque. When he marbleizes, Melee is channeling Pollock (and Stewart) by way of Warhol (that master of polyvalent meaning), who may have been the first artist to co-opt Pollock’s macho paint-flinging with his “Oxidization Paintings.” Yet even in his referencing of such still-influential artists, Melee alerts us to the fact that everyone succumbs to “the sleep of reason” at some point. After all, even Martha Stewart, a beacon of traditional middle-class, maternal values, served time.

Claire Barliant