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David Mellen
HEART WORN THIN

 


David Mellen's work is not easily defined, vacillating between human flesh and metaphoric representation, the paintings beg you to look deeper and to consider their physical properties. Duchamp, de Kooning, Bacon, Giacometti, Rothko are all direct influences for Mellen, yet he can not be strictly categorized as a representational or an abstract artist.

Mellen paints forms reminiscent of human bodies, building them one day at a time for the duration of several months. An endless process of addition and subtraction is at work as the loosely defined figures emerge in sharp contrast with precisely executed geometric backgrounds of neutral colors. The juxtaposition between exposed canvas, well-defined geometric background and a form as the subject of the painting is a motif that has followed Mellen’s work through the years.

The entities in Mellen’s work reference actions rather than concrete characters. For example, in Descent (2020) a fall from grace would be recognizable to any medieval reader of the Bible, but we could also see the figure in the act of alienation from its identity. A demonic presence inside a body is suspended between outer and inner realms in Fragment (2021)(header image). The diptych Swansong (2021) baffles us with our inability to make a coherent statement about anatomy based on our critical thinking, a painting unfolding beyond the frame. An aspect noticed by the artist himself as he works with this intention in mind until a technical problem, he tested himself with, is finally resolved.

Distortions of Mellen's forms link him to Francis Bacon. Although the portrayed people have perceived Bacon's distorted figures as injuries, by de-constructing their bodies he simply was making images more real to himself.  To arrive at a deeper sense of meaning and truth, beyond menacing or screaming figures, Bacon used a sense of alienation and existential despair as his vehicle. Mellen uses techniques he has mastered over time to create a body of work that explores ideas of boundary, spatial positioning, self, and its limits. His figures are breaking through or escaping the surrounding matrix, attempting to inhabit a new sense of place. We do not have an opportunity to observe their thoughts or see their emotions, but we can see the struggle and graceful energy of it.


Excerpted from the essay: “DAVID MELLEN'S UNFOLDING ICONOGRAPHY” by Nina Mdivani, October 2021

David Mellen

Bacon had this way of searching for anything he could use for his paintings. So in his use of literature, movies, photography, paintings, those interviews really showed me that everything should be on the table and had potential. It also got me interested in the idea of a solitary artist, just working alone in a studio, with no assistance or other distractions. That idea of what one does when alone in a room? Why paint?  What is important really and if no one cares about your work, are you strong enough to keep going?

Image:

Swansong, 2021

Diptych; two panels each 70 x 42 in, Combined 75 x 86 in
Oil on linen

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INTERVIEW: March 6, 2022

TUSSLE: Can you describe some of your early influences?
 
DAVID MELLEN: Well, I remember feeling overwhelmed by what I didn’t know when I was 18 and tried to read and look at everything I could. I found Bacon’s interviews with David Sylvester and that was a great jumping off point for me. I was interested in Bacon’s paintings but those interviews led me to a lot of other artists and writers. Duchamp, Elliot, Joyce, Eisenstein, people I probably first heard about in those interviews.

Bacon had this way of searching for anything he could use for his paintings. So in his use of literature, movies, photography, paintings, those interviews really showed me that everything should be on the table and had potential. It also got me interested in the idea of a solitary artist, just working alone in a studio, with no assistance or other distractions. That idea of what one does when alone in a room? Why paint?  What is important really and if no one cares about your work, are you strong enough to keep going?

T: So, as an influence, Bacon provided much more for you than just his paintings? 

 

DM: Yes,  he provided a path for me. A start.
 
During that time, I was going to the Art Institute in Chicago and bookstores and libraries trying to find anything that could provide me with a direction.  One artist that really stood out was Duchamp. He was a complete mystery to me.  I couldn’t quite get a good idea of what he was doing from the photos of his work. I knew how the Large Glass was constructed and how Étant donnés required looking through the door and all of that, but it was obvious that I needed to travel to see the work in person.

T: And traveling to see work in person became very important?

DM: Yes, I also wanted that for my work. That feeling that the work must be seen in person. The other thing I liked about Duchamp was he took pride in everything he did but also had a detachment and a wonderful use of time; he really just wanted to keep himself interested or amused and did whatever he wanted. To me, that was what an artist should be.

T: So Bacon and Duchamp provided a framework for the type of artist you wanted to be but what about your work?

 

DM: I think it was easier for me to start by thinking about things I didn’t want or at least recognizing directions I wanted to avoid.  It’s also easier to find uninspiring work than it is to find great works which really move you. There was a lot of work which I noticed lost it’s appeal rather quickly, say once you started to understand it.  Some works which where exciting at first, quickly left me feeling empty.


I knew I didn’t want that for my work if I could avoid it, so I started to see how mystery added depth. Everything from the technique, composition, to subject matter was more interesting if it wasn’t easily understood, or maybe if it gave a feeling of understanding but not consciously knowing why.  I needed a visual language, one that would not require words.

T: And can you add some contemporary influences on your work? 

DM: I think as one gets older, it is really hard to find things that influence you much. I’ve been looking at a lot more photography and really like the work of some cinematographers such as Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki, some of it may have to do with the capturing of light. David Lynch and Terrence Malick do interesting work. I like Knausgaards writing quite a bit. I find it more interesting to look for things that are not painting, maybe because I feel that there is a bit more breathing room between, say, writing and my work, if that makes sense. I also really like Bruce Nauman’s work.

T: You began making sculpture and moved into painting later on... Can you describe this transition and why was it important to begin with sculpture?

DM: The influence of de Kooning and Bacon and Joyce, and Beckett, kind of paralyzed me.  They created the work I wanted to make but of course I couldn’t so I needed to find a way out somehow.  I liked how Beckett started writing in French to get away from Joyce. I needed something like that. Sculpture had possibilities.   I liked Giacometti and Brancusi, Duchamp, Bourgeois, Beuys, Eva Hesse but I felt there was some room to try something new there. I also had moved to Germany and had very little money, so sculpture worked because I was able to plan everything until I got paid, then run to  Bauhaus to buy supplies. I was paid once a month so this way of working just repeated itself. This also made obvious the need to have one's’ thought and technique work together, sometimes with the thought pushing the technique and then the technique pushing the thought forward.

Although I was making sculptures, I had always thought that writing was a preferable way to work in the arts, because your materials could be just a pen and paper. You could also live anywhere and did not need much space. It’s all ideas and one’s ability to convey those ideas so there is purity there and I envied that way of life.

 

T: When was your last sculpture and do you think you will go back to sculpting?

 

DM: 2014. I don’t know. I have some ideas but paints and canvas just provide a simplicity of materials that I like right now.


T: So back to an earlier question that you asked yourself, “Why paint?”

 

DM: I really like the quiet of paintings. It is just an image that has this potential to unlock so many thoughts and feelings. I like the act of paining which allows the image to quickly change, sometimes from moment to moment and when it’s finished, it has permanence.

T: Some of the imagery in your work alludes to a human form at times, both sensual and barbaric.

 

DM: Yes. I do feel like it is more interesting to try to capture something about the human condition as such but I want to do it in an abstract way. An abstraction with an emotional and sculptural weight.

T: It can be hard to understand how your paintings are constructed. What are you hoping to convey by the depth and texture in your work?

 

DM: I guess there are a couple of things. One is I work on these paintings for a while, sometimes three months and because I only have a vague idea of what I want when I start, all the work to figure out the image is done on the canvas. So the work contains a history of that search, sometimes it’s still visible, but sometimes it is buried. Another thing I want is the images to have a presence and be at the front of the picture plane with an extreme closeness to the viewer, so that leads to a strange, shallow depth.

 

T: The titles of your work are often poetic, but not always linked to the image. How do you title your work? Before beginning or at some other point during its evolution?

 

DM: That depends and the title could come at any moment. The thing is it is difficult but very important because it provides a first clue to approaching the painting. Sometimes working titles never end up working because I don’t like the way the sound or look when written and I have to search for another which captures the work. The one thing I would say is that they are always linked to the image for me.


T: What are some common questions or misconceptions that have come up about your work and how do you answer them?

DM: I don’t know that I have come across any. It might be that I really believe the viewer completes the work of art and if there is something I don’t agree with, maybe I failed in the works conveyance or a viewer and I don’t have the same sympathies. I’m much more surprised when my work means something to someone.

T: Are there any other facets to your process that will help the viewer when looking at your current work?


DM: Well, I want to make images that don’t make literal sense but visual sense and have an emotion and presence to them. It’s like seeing something out of the corner of your eye and although the image is unclear, you still feel all the weight of who or what it is, maybe even fear or dread.  Trying to capture what is held in that glace is very difficult and as I work, pieces may slip away and certain directions I take assuming they are correct, end up being misguided.  I feel my paintings are an accumulation of that search.

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The Bell.jpg

Chimera, 2020

74 x 54 in, Oil on linen

The Bell, 2021

72 x 48 in, Oil on linen