Sunday, February 10, 2013

Melissa Brown

Where it's at!!
Melissa has an ongoing series of rock paintings. During our visit, she expressed her interest in choosing quotidian objects as her subject matter. The way in which Melissa approaches painting seems to align itself more philosophically with a historically Eastern attitude, since the Judeo-Christian ethos does not traditionally embrace mundane reality, despite the fact that banality has become a prevalent  theme in contemporary art. When James Joyce wrote Ullysses, chronicling the events of one ordinary day in Dublin, it caused a revolution in Occidental thought.   
Here is an excerpt from William Barrett's study of Existentialism, Irrational Man, explaining this shift in thought:
       The deflation, or flattening out of values in Western art does not necessarily indicate an ethical nihilism. Quite the contrary; in opening our eyes to the rejected elements of existence, art may lead us to a more complete and less artificial celebration of the world. In literature, again, the crucial example is Joyce's Ullyses. It was not a literary critic but a psychologist, C. G. Jung, that perceived that this book was non-Western in Spirit... For Ulysses breaks with the whole tradition of Western sensibility and Western aesthetics in showing each small object of Bloom's day- even the objects in his pocket, like a cake of soap- as capable at certain moments of taking on a transcendental importance- or in being, at any rate, equal in value to those objects to which men usually attribute value.
I first attempted reading Ullysses about a decade ago, but I wasn't quite feeling it, and didn't get passed the first few pages despite the fact that I recognize it's greater philosophical and societal worth. Perhaps I should give it another shot? Past a certain point one is expected to be able tie one's shoes and to have read Ullysses, although in much of Academia you will be judged more harshly for not having read Joyce than not knowing how to tie your own shoelaces. There's this great Mark Twain quote, which is, "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read." 
 Check out how Melissa's phat rock made my mani pop!!!
I noticed that many of Melissa's paintings are structured in a way that an object or tree blocks the viewer from having an immediate point of entry into the painting. Melissa talked about how she began composing her paintings in this way, after thinking about the way in which Konrad Witz structured The Pietà, in the Frick. She also explained that her favorite parts of Medieval paintings, are the landscapes, which are typically treated as just a backdrop, so her solution was to remove the figure altogether and focus on the landscape. Although Melissa's paintings reference art historical practices aesthetically, they deviate from the ideological aspects of European painting traditions. This painting especially derails the anticipated format, since it seems to share more of a relationship with portraiture rather than landscape, despite the absence of the figure. Historically, in Eastern painting, nature was depicted as being infinite and endless and the human being was represented as small and inconsequential. We see this in Fan Kuan's traditional Chinese paintings from the tenth century as well as in the much later 19th century Japanese prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai. In European art practices, the reverse was true for hundreds of years, the human was always shown as the most important and powerful being in the universe, and nature was treated merely as a decorative background meant to compliment the queen's magnificent wardrobe and jewels. In our current milieu, globalization has erased and blended these diametrically opposed tendencies towards pictorial representation. Another factor that has contributed to the breakdown of being able to assess cultural influences and tendencies as easily in art is the way in which contemporary art practices borrow freely from all available sources. It also seems glaringly obvious, but necessary to point out that the internet has played a key role in diluting traditional cultural influences.
Computers have completely altered how we perceive pictorial representation. Melissa comments on Computer-mediated reality, using pathos and humor, in these paintings of laptops with floating screensavers that are blocking the viewer from actual, physical nature.  Although technology grants us the luxury of accessing endless knowledge in the matter of seconds, it also has the potential to alienate us from others, our selves, and even our own environment. Being abstracted from our own lives and the true nature of being isn't exactly a new phenomenon or a sole by product of technology.
Barrett begins Irrational Man by quoting Kierkegaard, which I have quoted before on this blog, since it's such a powerful parable, and one that I think about often:

The story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead.

Steve Jobs offered a solution to Kierkegaard's conundrum during his commencement speech at Stanford, when he said, Live every day like your lastbecause one day it will be. Many people flippantly repeat, "Live every day like your last," but they don't really mean it. After a while it becomes yet another clichéd, weightless expression that causes more aggravation than anything. By adding, "because one day it will be," Jobs' pithy mantra adds a sense of actuality. It's much easier said than done, but considering the alternative, living life fully and fearlessly appears to be the only option.

Melissa collects money from many time periods and cultures. She also uses it as source material. I took a picture of Saddam, since it was the bill that resonated with me the most. It was such a strange and disgusting day when he was executed, the feelings I felt then were akin to the way Plath described the Rosenberg trial in The Bell Jar. We talked about the brutality of that day, and how humanity really hasn't progressed much ethically since the times of the Romans. At least the Romans were more honest with their penchant for blood thirst. Feeding Christians to lions kept them entertained for hours!!! Considering our ADHD and social-networking addled brains, it would take a lot more than that to keep contemporary Americans engrossed. 
By painting the manhole,  Melissa once again takes an everyday, overlooked object. There is a certain tenderness to how she anthropomorphizes the manhole and  imbues it with meaning. Although Melissa's painting has more of a sense of contemporary urgency, I was reminded of Roger Brown in the way this painting conveys the sense of mystery that surrounds urban life.