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David Mellen
Abstraction and Figuration, An Intricate Merger

David Mellen was born in 1970 in Chicago. He studied at the American Academy of Art. Exhibiting his art in Chicago until 1994, he then made the decision to move to Europe, where he showed his paintings for a period of five years—in Paris, Brussels, and London. During that period, he also established studios in Germany and Brussels. In 2000. Mellen moved back to the States. He lived for a time on the West Coast but moved east and now lives with his family in Connecticut. Mellen currently shows in New York City at Ivy Brown Gallery. This précis of a painter’s life, so active with travel, doesn’t really do justice to the accomplishment of the paintings, which demonstrate a technical skill biased as much toward the European as the American vision, along with a fascinating combination of body imagery and resolute abstraction. There are elements in Mellen’s art that might be considered academic; another word that comes to mind is erotic, as the suggestion of the naked body regularly enters into his work. Yet the adjectives don’t do justice to the complexity of the paintings, which, in truth, embody oppositions in the most elegant manner. In speaking of Mellen’s work, we often hear references to the influence of Francis Bacon, the great contemporary master of figuration.


Bacon’s forms, his faces especially, merge and coalesce as if the flesh were something transient and fluid. Without imitation, Mellen follows this manner of working. His whitish, light tan or brown body parts are evidently derived from the human figure, but they do not fit together in ways that make the body easily recognizable. Often the physical components connect with each other, forming the approximation of a torso or other body component. Yet the accumulation of parts can seem arbitrary, deliberately conceived, rather than being a description of a person’s frame. Inevitably, the image is pushed toward an abstraction that complements Mellen’s interests—a near puzzle of individual parts. Mellen is most interested in the place where abstraction and figuration meet, and this point of contact is determined by highly skillful renderings of things that seem recognizable but evade definition. In “Fragment” (2021), there is the painted suggestion of a triptych; two gray panels on either end of the painting flank a darker gray panel in the middle. In this work, the existence of a figure in an off-white, lying horizontally with his head on the left and his legs on the right, take up most of the scene. But while the body in the center of the painting is not difficult to recognize, abstract elements also occur.


In “Fragment”, there are elements around the head and the way the right leg is realized that cannot be regarded as entirely realist. Mellen’s highly skilled painterly effects collapse and consolidate, leaving us with a complicated mass of consequences. It is impossible to read these outcomes as presenting something faithful to what we see. Instead, the parts become part of a larger aggregate that cannot be easily joined to the relative clarity of the body. “Fragment” is an excellent painting that straddles the line between what can be comprehended and what cannot. It is tied to the Old Masters in ways that do not repeat art history so much as develop it further.


This is a time when art historical influence in the West is being deeply challenged by younger artists who have small patience with the canon. In contrast, Mellen does something quite original with the past: he finds in our legacy a means to position his art between its antecedents and the current interest in hybrid artistic activity. In doing so, Mellen keeps art history alive even as he attends to the idea of an imagery derived from a set of complex allegiances. The struggle today for a painter to hold his ground in the face of a highly politicized community, in which many painters find issues of skill and awareness of the past moot, involved extended disagreement with a facile emphasis on social practice. One hesitates to make too much of the point; many artists today have not given up on what has preceded them. But the atmosphere is currently volatile, and it takes a centered sensibility to remain committed to art that incorporates both the old and the new.


The other impression that comes quickly to mind on seeing Mellen’s paintings is their complete devotion to an expressiveness that does not actively communicate the sensibility of the artist. His presence is most often hidden from his paintings. One of the ongoing attributes of American culture is its expansive, if also often egotistical, drive. Yet the trace of self-assertion, in a traditional way, does not find a place in Mellen’s art. Mellen is a painter of reticence and indirection. Consequently, the artist’s sense of himself is found in the skill with which he makes the painting, a quality hard to register as expansively persona, as well as in the conceptual intelligence we find in the painting’s ambience. These paintings look like they are driven by the intellect along with their emotional or formal concerns. Mellen’s intellect is always available in his paintings. We find a sense of self that remains free of excessive assertion, without yielding to diffidence. Perhaps the best, if also the hardest, thing to do in art is to erase the sense of self behind its making. Very few artists or writers do this now; we are living in a time entirely devoted to self-expression. What can be done? One obvious tactic is to refrain from personalizing the art. Often, the less we know about the artist, the better off we are, although many today do not feel this way. But the determination not to betray the image by emphasizing the self is a great boon. Ever since the emergence of abstract expressionism, American art has been fascinated with the personal life of the artist at the expense of creativity. The same is true of writing; look at our obsession with the private lives of poets such as T.S. Eliot or Robert Lowell. Mellen’s understated presentation of a hybrid concept in painting, in which the figure and abstraction coexist, shows that a different point of view, one combining opposing styles, can be just as effective.


This idea of painting anonymously, in a single painting or during the course of a career, is not seen today as useful. In New York City’s art milieu, which has been overcrowded for a couple generations, we are taken with self-display. We can say, with accuracy, that a muted sense of self is just as good at creating memorable art as the concerted freedoms of the present. The silence Mellen’s art may be generated by the muted tonalities he often employs. It may also stem from his belief, conscious or not, that imagery is often capable of communicating values that may begin with the artist but move far beyond him. This happens in writing, too; the great 20th-century poet T.S. Eliot successfully turned away from anything private in his poetry, a decision that results in an impersonal selflessness both innately temperamental and, likely, pious.


Too often, we have forgotten the meaning of the past as we proceed. This results in a self-regard based only on the moment at hand. Great art has of course been made that way, but for certain painters and poets, this attitude smacks of excessive personal involvement. The object follows the vagaries of the artist. By contrast, Mellen set out to work in the manner of his choosing, with excellent results. In “The Bell” (2021) we assume the rounded shapes are linked to the portrayal of flesh. In this work, the white components are set on top of each other, fitting rather like the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Black lines or threads define the edges of the parts, which suggest a figure in their overall mass. Behind this mass is a broad, straight-edged dark gray plane, giving the painting a bit of cohesion in contrast to the organic forms that dominate the painting. Here, as with “Fragment”, the difference between the non-objective and the visually genuine is made clear, just as the forms between right-angled depiction and rounded edges are evident as opposing factors. These terms of contrast regularly inform Mellen’s art. His technical skills are such that the paintings move seamlessly from realism into abstraction and back again. As a result, the paintings thrive on differences that may not have been consciously made; in this artist’s case, the oppositions feel intuitive, stemming from conflicts within the painting. Mellen asserts a visual complexity that finds its equilibrium in relation to the past, and its formal pose in relation to the skills he possesses. Only time will reveal whether these variances from today’s usual art are eloquent in the way that we assume—as evidence of someone trying to revive a nearly moribund vocation.


If Mellen’s paintings orchestrate a complexity derived both from an intricate style and equally complex notion of painting’s ability to cross boundaries and conception in a time of considerable eclecticism, it makes sense he would end up creating a full vision out of different, not necessarily easily joined, particulars. But likely the contrasts support each other; his abstraction underpins his figuration, while his realism supports his taste for non-objective art. In the painting “Némésis” (2022), a horizontal diptych offers a top component that describes something like two figures mirroring each other, but with a horrific effect: it looks like both their heads have been cut off. So the final effect is brutal; in the lower half of the diptych, it looks like two bodies are intertwined; we see an entire body stretched across the composition, its head on the far right. Then, on the far left, a bowed pair of legs, of what seems to be another person’s body, occupy the space. It is hard to tell what the naked figures are doing; they could be engaging either in erotic or aggressive activities, although the somber title of the work suggests the latter. In the background, a wide, gray metallic column rises from the lower to the upper half of the diptych, supporting the figure laid out on the top; a mustard yellow background completes the piece.


“Némésis” is a powerful work of art that accepts violence—physical violence—as a metaphor for modern life. Mellen’s penchant for a traditional presentation of the figure, coupled with non-objective imagery—views that do not always yield to a realist interpretation—demonstrate the artist’s unusual ability to take a traditional trope, a historically established one such as the unclothed figure, and turn it into a metaphor for resistance to non-objective thinking. Even the figurative may be shrouded in thematic and formal mystery; despite Mellen’s complexities, his works’ meaningfulness can, with effort, be puzzled out. Still, meaning is not easy to unravel in Mellen’s art, which intimates rather than states. But that in no way compromises the paintings’ power, at least in part because they are not intended to be obscure. This work may be a first cousin of Bacon’s art, but it also shades into scholarly considerations of the painted figure, even if its suggested intricacies contemporize its atmospheric power. In this way, Mellen joins his awareness of and affection for traditional painting with an emotional depth that can be perceived as a perception of modern life. Perhaps the best way to view Mellen’s impulse is to see him as a practitioner of the past in service of the present. He inevitably rejects the popular culture so prevalent in art now; and instead, he searches, in nearp scholarly fashion, for visual metaphors that resound with a greater gravitas than we usually experience in contemporary art.


In “Taime” (2022), the complexity of Mellen’s imagination reaches a high point. The mixture of abstract elements and body parts is so complex as to reject any easy reading of the work’s meaning. Here, three off-white bulging, rounded, organic forms connect with each other—but in a way that does not generate a full understanding of their connection. Framing these forms in idiosyncratic fashion are non-linear edges, sometimes curved, sometimes presenting pink, shard-like masses. A curved, pink column, bent so that the shape feels extremely malleable, droops over a black horizontal bar, while at the bottom of the composition, we see a black form partially supporting the greater mass in the middle. In the center right, a complex, skillfully painted indeterminate form occurs; we don’t know what it is or means. Despite the suggestion of body parts occurring in the spherical, flesh-like shapes, this is more exactly described as an abstract work, primarily because its roots stem from the forms alone, rather than from any associations, thematic or formal, that would tie the painting to something real. As happens with non-objective art, the work stands on its own terms, yielding neither to narrative nor to symbolic interpretation. This means that its shapes are everything, being simply what they are.


Mellen’s title, “Taime”, is suggestive. In French, the phrase je t’aime means “I love you.” The artist may or may not be directing this painting to someone he cares deeply about, but it is hard not to read the work as an act of affection in light of its name. Maybe the ambiguity, the enigmatic quality of the work, along with what it is called, points out a method used by the artist. All of the works described in this article are, on some level, mysterious and resistant to comprehension. Their complex employment of form, coupled with a sensibility at a remove from the actual making of the composition, results in work that keeps its distance from accessibility at first glance. The force of understanding in the work is generated by the depth, and complexity, of the visuals. I am not suggesting that Mellen’s art is deliberately difficult, only that its effectiveness of feeling is generated by intricacies of thought as well as human emotion. Art audiences tend to take in a painting in a moment or two, but Mellen rewards a longer gaze. At least part of his accomplishment is based on the balance he establishes between abstraction and figuration over time. This is not seen often on a regular basis in contemporary art. Still, even so, the time today is also deeply hybrid and highly eclectic, providing Mellen with a window that enables him to borrow freely.


What does it mean to work in ways that can and cannot be identified? Is Mellen’s style a way of moving painting forward? We cannot assume that he proceeds consciously in the complexities of his art. Instead, we can say that the work results from an unconscious attempt to reflect the truths of his own sensibility. His language is taken from what feels new, according to the spirit of the time. The notion of a selfless author also helps us understand Mellen’s innovative stance. If the artist distances himself from a visible existence in his work, he is not available as the architect of his creativity. The work stands by itself; Its accomplishment remains separate from the artist. In Mellen’s case, it is fair to say that the distance is considerable between his figurative and abstract considerations. We can comment on his painting with some accuracy, but we don’t know what Mellen is thinking. Anonymity in art has been lost to a much more assertive esthetic, but maybe reticence can be seen as a healthy corrective to the excesses of self we have come to expect in art. The virtues of measure and restraint, quite clear in Mellen’s paintings, start to look like a true opposition to the expressionist drive; emotionally exuberant art still results in striking paintings, but work in accordance with the past, in oblique fashion rather than assertively direct, can also be seen as a major idiom.


To summarize, Mellen has proceeded to work according to his own design. He sees art as a medium of discovery rather than a display of untrammeled emotion. This has very little to do with a liberal or conservative attitude toward painting, especially at a time when any kind of style can be justified as effective. Mellen’s merger of non-objective form with figurative indications is an ambitious decision that works. At a time when both ways of proceeding are established, it makes sense to use the two approaches in tandem. We have to remember that, in contemporary art, the very pursuit of painting is seen by some as an anachronism! The question then becomes, How do we move out of something regarded as antiquated and establish a platform for new visual articulations? This is easier said than done. Legacies have a way of shutting down innovation. Mellen rightly moves in a direction of change. His historical subtleties may be construed as an unwillingness to move ahead, but this is wrong. Instead, he is producing work with an intelligent insight: painting today is meant to move across genres and periods. The effectiveness of appropriation and eclecticism can be questioned, but that need not concern us. Mellen paints the way he does because he has to, not because he has a theory in mind. His complexity, intellectual and formal, results in work that remains both a critique of and an advance in art’s past. This is likely the best way of advancing painting.


Jonathan Goodman, September 28, 2022


David Mellen, Ivy Brown Gallery, 675 Hudson Street, New York,  October 19th - November 15th, 2022

Mellen Images
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