Brent: You have a penchant for Travel, often for the more exotic places on this globe. You return home, go to the studio, and take out your notes… what are these notes?
Mel: I like to be completely immersed while I’m traveling—so this means not putting a frame/ lens/ color on paper between the experience and myself. Sometimes I take little snapshots with my phone, or quickly record video of small moments with my cheap camera. On this trip to Senegal I have three little videos I am happy with: one is walking on the road in a village by the welder’s stand. The welder likes to listen to Islamic music and blasts it on an old speaker (music and tools powered by a generator). So we are approaching this stand, walking behind our grandmother and a taxi is approaching from behind, sounding a sort of funny custom horn. It’s these strange moments, when layers of unrelated things that occur spontaneously, that characterize travel for me. I have no idea what will happen with these captured moments once I return.
Brent: The image you sent with two girls dressed in these beautiful soft colors in a landscape of grass gold and blue…
With that image in hand I’m going to turn to the subways of Tokyo, Japan. Then I want to jump over to Osaka. Japan is your friend, and the subways your inspiration: What led you to the subways?
Mel: I love train travel and the subway, especially in Japan. The beautiful fabric of the seat cushions, the carpet, the patterns and the clean white hanging loops to hold – they blow my mind. The trains are so clean, quiet, and perfectly on time. Everything about the subway in Japan is amazing – not to mention it’s in my favorite place and I feel happy and excited when I’m there. Even when the subway car is packed tight like sardines it’s still great. And the cute little bilingual LED scrolling signs that tell you where your train is, and how soon you’ll be arriving. Also – being underground and going somewhere distant so fast and then coming back up – surprise – you’re now somewhere else – it feels like time travel and like getting an unexpected gift at the same time.
As far as the work goes: when I began doing these drawings, I was looking for a way to use color and line in a more spontaneous seeming way. I started out by using an English alphabet gridded out and making my own sentences but these had a confessional feeling and were easy to control the outcome. Those works made me feel too serious, like I had to say something Important. I looked for something I loved and felt really excited about instead. I then worked with lyrics from the first five Led Zeppelin albums for the next series of drawings and these had a certain structure, based on the placement of the grid of the commonly used English letters. I am familiar with Hiragana, so the grid became a chart of 71 syllables, with the structure shifting from drawing to drawing, based on remembering them all.
Brent: How do you make a grid out of 71 Hiragana characters?
Mel: It’s a different process than using English, where I was accustomed to a certain order (A-Z). Using Hiragana, I put characters down in the order I could remember them – so it was a different structure each time. The Osaka Metro pieces are slightly off square, so I made the grid 8×9 dots, fudge-ing the math part to make the dots fit the shape. On a separate piece of paper I write the characters out as I remember them, usually the favorite shaped ones first and copy the rest. I finish the page of Hiragana and use it to match each syllable to each grid’s dot – for they are not ever written on the same paper. This reminds me of two things – when I’m painting the lines, it’s like that game Battleship, where you call out x and y axis locations to your opponent using skill and luck to win the game; when I’m painting, I’m locating each character, initially, by counting the x/y axis location. It’s also like the first web page I made from an image of an old scumbly number paintings; using image maps, rather than buttons, to make different locations. Only when you rolled over the spots that linked to something could you see that they were links to embedded sound files and images of related works. The grids are a way of structuring information that may or may not be related – but thinking in a three- or four-dimensional sense – involving memory and location.
Brent: Chiyoda and Yurakucho each refer to a particular subway line in Tokyo.
Yurakucho springs up with a network of lines from the base, or so it feels visually. There is a dense area of line work that reads directional, and not particularly structural, just going where the line has to go. As they spread out you start seeing through the line into a space – some manage to make it to the border, but, of course, these never get across: The line routes back.
In the area with less activity is this due to the Hiragana characters not coming up on the subway list? Are these gouache on pre-colored watercolor paper, or is there a ground preparation?
Mel: The Tokyo pieces are rectangular – so there is more play in terms of shape and density. The colored ground is painted gouache – some are opaque and others show brush-strokes, becoming “open” and spatial. But the way they will look when complete is unknown; I paint following the locations on the grid. This unknown-ness is really important to me – I don’t want to make a preconceived object at this point – I’m interested in being in the presence of the actual completed piece. This is how I began working with Hiragana. In the Led Zeppelin pieces I had begun to know where the lines would go, which letters occurred most often (a, n, t, i, e, s) and I could direct the color, density and shape more than I wanted to. I began using limited color in the Japan drawings, as each line used to have a new color and there were too many colors to be seen. The raw white of the paper was playing too heavy a role in the work and each line color was often modified by white – and tints only give a portion of the spectrum.
Also, I should say that I can’t see the 3D quality of these at all – to me they are almost totally flat. So I think I see these a lot differently than most people.
Brent: The Osaka Metro paintings on paper have a white background. I guess you could say there is the suggestion of architectural structure in each work, perhaps enhanced by the line versus light background, but primarily I see how space is arranged, working as color, mark, or in absence as they open. And in the Osaka Metro paintings there is a lot of absence. That this comes up following some rule, along with a certain level of forgetting or mistake is interesting when you look at the work.
I realize now, too, that you use both Hiragana and English. And when you make a boo-boo you highlight that in another color. Obviously Osaka has fewer stops on the line. But we love the place none-the-less.
Mel: I mentally assign the plain, unchanged paper of the Osaka Metro pieces invisibility, as though the white is air. Often people see these pieces and think they are colored string on nails and framed. I don’t see them this way; it’s not what I’m thinking about when I make them. Because I see things in 2D I am always imagining space as some sort of illusion. I use cast shadows to give me a sense of depth, flipping my mind between 2D and 3D in everyday life.
Open, to me is airy, atmospheric and suggested. Osaka Metro, and the other works on paper, have less defined parameters – they are more like directions. I like that they are very structured and have a beginning and end but they appear completely chaotic; and the urge to highlight the mistake feels absurd. I can imagine the architecture part but I see it flipping between line, plane and space.
One thing I forgot to mention about the mistakes being accentuated; I borrowed this from the Japanese tradition of repairing broken ceramics with gold. The feeling is that a repaired tea bowl becomes more beautiful with its imperfection.
Brent: Not at all surprised about the nail and string thing. It’s a real thing. You make them as a kid, and you know how they work. And the structure’s inherent illusion is intriguing because you get it and it’s all happening in real space but it’s also working with illusion. I don’t think it’s a disservice. But it is not what you are doing. Call it oddly associative.
You are looking to work with less defined parameters. And for me I’m very comfortable going off into the refined and controlled versus chaotic of the spare Osaka Metro’s dimensionality, where the pleasure of sensing does the rest.
You use taut panels to make a very different kind of painting. The practical surface perhaps is solid though engages color, vibration, order, in a very different manner.
These paintings do not come from the Tokyo or the Osaka Subway. Some do have titles that include Japanese location or events. Though they are of another world. What world is that?
Mel: The panels are a more hermetic practice than the works on paper, though they are also process driven. Although the oil paintings are more closed, there is play in the beginning and end, with the middle being the labor of paint mixing. I arrive at the base color slowly, beginning with a color I can see or imagine. Once the color is painted on the panel it takes over and needs to be something new, so I have a lot of time to play and experiment. The line colors are all premixed after the base is complete, but I don’t always paint them in the order mixed; I can repeat colors or skip them. Sometimes I feel despair while I’m painting because it looks like a disaster: I only know if the painting is a success or failure once it is complete and I am standing in its presence.
I like using the Japanese titles because the word is first a sound or a shape. Ume sounds round and full and I’m conscious of my bottom lip when I say it. Later I can look up how the word translates. Titles also come from what I have read and recall. Shin-Remon comes from making the gradient by shading a Hansa yellow mixture with Ivory black and Raw umber. In Japan I heard the word Shin everywhere and when I looked it up I saw it meant New. Suddenly I had a small window to see and understand parts of different names of places; Shinjuku, Shinkansen, Shinbashi…
The black paintings are about the Haenyo, Korean women who free dive for fish on Jeju Island. (In Japan they are called Ama, and they dive for pearls). It’s a traditional, matriarchal society and it is slowly dying with the elderly divers. There are beautiful words that relate to their practice that I stole for painting titles, my favorite being Sumbisori. This is the deep, whistling breath the divers take as they come up from the dive, and has great onomatopoeia.
Brent: Your recent paintings have that deep whistling sound. They are to the tune of black. None are actually black, but they are very dark with the light coming though as vibration and color. What decided you to focus there?
Mel: I relied heavily on white for color and visibility and finally became aware of it. I needed to break my rule about using black from a tube. I bought a range of blacks: Slate, Mars, Lamp and Ivory and started doing color charts to see their character. I love Ad Reinhardt paintings and how they slowly reveal themselves. Have you ever gone under anesthesia or passed out? I like that slightly scary feeling of the ear-ringing hum that becomes a roar, right before you become unconscious. For me, black paintings have a slow read that engage me in a visceral way – it’s a more physical reaction than optical and are a part of another world I can now enter.
It wasn’t a black painting, but it had the horizontal buzz of vertically stacked lines going out. Purple Haze the climate, electric blue the pinch, and as some may experience, the signing off just before the lights goes out.
Dark grays, works on paper: Following the route and rhyme as you described with Tokyo and Osaka subway paintings, continuing the play with line, geometrics and their travel, of theater, something else is coming up, mysterious, with character, letter, and the misbehave. Is this a new direction?
Mel: Oh, yeah, that was Sumbisori; I hope I’ll see that before I die!
Yes, I have been holding on to a place for a long time before I make the turn. I think I will paint a second line, but I want to do more of what I don’t know.