Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mel Chin Retrospective at New Orleans Museum of Art

After Hurricane Katrina, Mel Chin was a tireless advocate for this city's youth. When he learned that  lead, a neurotoxin linked to violent behavior, contaminated our inner city neighborhoods, the Houston-born, Chinese American conceptual artist launched Operation Paydirt, a community based art campaign to obtain federal funding for soil remediation. His approach was typically novel--school children fashioning their own hand illustrated hundred dollar bills that would be presented to Congress to mobilize public funding--and while the economic and political winds have been far from favorable, the project continues, with some 44 million Fundred Dollar Bills created to date. This Rematch retrospective at NOMA reveals for the first time the intriguing, intricate trajectory from his early surrealist-inspired objects to his later, far more expansive and scientific, if often otherworldly, works dealing with the more pressing environmental and social issues facing the world, all linked by his boundless curiosity.

Perhaps most famous for his major environmental efforts like his Revival Field project, bottom, that used plants to mitigate hazardous waste sites, Rematch for the first time comprehensively reveals how his works all fit together. So here we see how his dreamy early sculptures inspired by Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp later influenced his subversively surreal props that appeared in the Melrose Place TV series, or how his early precisionist flair resurfaced in later sculptures like his surgical first aid kit concealed within the body of a Glock handgun. In other works, the metaphysical ramifications of Chinese philosophy are manifest in such mysteriously utilitarian as Vertical Palette, left,  an early (1976-85) rumination on the creative/destructive cycles of Chinese Five Element Theory. His endless curiosity is illustrated in his 1992 Degrees of Paradise, top, featuring a Tantrik symbol of the heavens flanked by two triangular rooms, one with a ceiling that photographically illustrating the ozone-depleted sky, the other with a custom woven Turkish rug based on satellite data. The concurrent show at Ferrara features wonders like his tribute to Louise Bourgeois' iconic giant metal spiders, only Chin's version, Cabinet of Craving, above,  contains in its torso an ornate 19th century tea set symbolizing, in his words, the "addictions and manipulations of empires, in this case, the Victorian English craving for tea and porcelain, the Chinese desire for silver and the insidious and illegal trade of narcotics that lead to the Opium War."  ~Bookhardt

 Rematch: A Retrospective of the Work of Conceptual Artist Mel Chin, Through May 25, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100; More Greatest Hits: Mixed Media Exhibition by Mel Chin, Through April 12, Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 400A Julia St., 522-5471. Left: Revival Field by Mel Chin