Installation view at MINUS SPACE project space, 2009
Matthew Deleget: Where did the paintings in your exhibition at MINUS SPACE begin?
Douglas Melini: Well, you were actually involved in the dawn of the new work. As you know during the summer of 2007, I had just finished preparing work for your exhibition Machine Learning and as fate would have it, my studio flooded, destroying close to a year’s worth of paintings, most of which were set for your exhibition. For me it was a pretty traumatic event. You know, it’s one of those things that can result in a number of outcomes. One can retreat and become very angry or negative, maybe even bitter over something like this, or one can engage with it and make sense of the situation, create meaning out of it. And for me, my studio practice is way too valuable to let this type of event take me in any direction other than forward.
For years I’ve been interested in folk arts and crafts, and it’s played a significant role in my painting practice in some form or another for the last 12 years. When I began to think about making new paintings after the flood, I began to consider the idea of a talisman and how it might function in relationship to painting. At the time I wasn’t quite sure how it would function, but I knew that I was headed in that direction. Shortly after I finished the earliest versions of the paintings, I visited a friend down in North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I saw many barns in the countryside dotted with large geometric images and they actually looked close to the images that I was painting. Neither of us was sure exactly what these images on the barns represented, but I remembered the hex signs that the Pennsylvania Dutch had used as protective symbols for they’re barns and figured that they were being used in a similar way.
My studio practice has always been about letting personal events and experiences filter into my work in one way or another and I liked the idea of an abstract painting having talismanic powers. I know that the idea of a painting as a talisman may seem like a leap of faith or something, but making paintings requires a belief in something that’s not necessarily tangible. One has to have faith in the practice, a kind of focus or trust in the act of painting, hoping that it will all eventually lead somewhere. To be truthful things were happening in a very organic way and I was just trying to pay attention to everything. It all seemed to make sense to me. I guess that’s how the paintings for MINUS SPACE began.
Untitled (Abstract Painting No. 14), 2009
Acrylic on canvas with hand-painted frame
23 x 19 inches
Matthew: The new bilaterally symmetrical forms in your paintings elicit a fierce kaleidoscopic effect, a kind of folding, centrifugal space. Your paintings also feature a brand new element in your work — elaborate, hand-painted frames. All of the frames are restricted to two colors, and present diamond patterns on the front face of the painting and fine stripes on the sides. Tell me about them.
Douglas: Yeah, I wanted to create a space that was constantly moving back and forth, a space that was folding and unfolding, but I wanted it to also exist as an overall image. I thought about how a kaleidoscope works, breaking up and fracturing a space and I really wanted that sort of dynamic in the paintings. With the frames, the initial idea for them began organically as a result of the paintings damaged in the flood. Although the damage was throughout, the majority of it was on the sides. I had used this black gaffers tape to keep the sides clean, and apparently the tape has an ink in it which makes it black, and when the water hit it, it bled all over the sides. This damage made me think a lot about the sides of the painting, I guess you could say that a seed was planted, and because of this, I started to think of frames and what it means for a painting to be framed.
So, when I began to think and plan the new works, I imagined them with frames from the start. I knew I wanted the new paintings to function more like interiors and the frames really allowed me to achieve this, creating a border, a kind of viewfinder type of space, keeping the information on the inside. And you know, I really like the turtle. It’s a very interesting creature. The shell is obviously a protective layer, but it’s such a distinct part of their overall appearance. What would a turtle look like without its shell? Anyway, when I set out to paint the frames, I wanted a pattern that would repeat around it. I used a diagonal to divide the spaces, creating a triangular motif for the outside that I could use as an opposition to the information on the inside. And the bands on the sides are very important because they activate the sides, so that when you move around the object it remains visually active from all vantage points.
Detail of Untitled (Abstract Painting No. 13), 2009
Acrylic on canvas with hand-painted frame
23 x 19 inches
Matthew: I find it really compelling how you took what was in every sense a terrible, even tragic, incident involving your new work — works you never even had the opportunity to show publicly — and used it as an opportunity to challenge yourself and push your future work even further. In addition to the framing, your use of color in these paintings is moving in a new direction too. The works now feature iridescent for the first time, which appear to sit on top of your other colors, including metallics, fluorescents, gray values, pinks, turquoise blues, etc. How are you using color in these new works?
Douglas: My overall approach to how I think about color and what I want it to do in my paintings has stayed the same. I’ve always been interested in color in relation to the social and issues of taste, but my approach has never been a scientific one. It’s always been very intuitive. I’m influenced by everything that I see in the world and I try to incorporate my experiences into my paintings. I often use color as a way to translate those experiences, always hoping to create a unique and unusual chromatic space.
In my earlier work, it was more of a balancing act with the color. With the newer paintings, the color is much more paired down and my process for arriving at the colors in any one painting has changed. I spend a lot of time thinking about the individual colors that I’m going to use way before the painting starts. It’s a real process and I try to remain very focused during this time, meditating on color. Once I get a good idea of where I want to go, I start to make swatches of the colors I want to use, adjusting them accordingly. Some are mixed, some are layered, and some colors are straight out of the tube. It’s usually a combination of all three.
The patterns function like vessels. They carry the color. Each component of the pattern is a color and the combination of these different colored lines is going to make an overall hue, creating specific vibrations. I have to consider this and be very selective in order to achieve the look or feel I’m after. Needless to say, changes are often made and I try to remain as open as possible while constructing the painting to allow for the necessary color adjustments. I’m going for an overall feel, but there is a lot of experimenting to get to that place. Although it’s mostly intuitive, there is some applied science involved when arriving at certain colors. The metallic and iridescent paints are new additions to the work. I want the surfaces to become more activated and I like the way the metallics create a certain kind of surface depth, while the iridescent paint allowed for a shifting in color as you moved from side to side of the work, which I love.
Installation view at MINUS SPACE project space, 2009
Matthew: I want to pick up on a couple of interesting ideas you just mentioned. You describe your approach as less about science and more about intuition. Similarly, in previous conversations with you at your studio, you also described your paintings and your use of pattern as subjective, specifically in comparison with earlier Op Art precedents, such as Bridget Riley and Richard Anuszkiewicz. You described their use of pattern to me as coming from a more scientific or mathematical point of departure. I think many viewers commonly associate pattern painting with a kind of fundamental objectivity. Talk a bit about how you arrived at using pattern in your work. And do you think of yourself as a pattern painter?
Douglas: Patterning is a natural process of the world. In many ways patterning is part of our everyday life. As an example, I wake up every morning and experience a type of patterning within my own body. You know those patterns you experience when you rub your eyes in the morning? They’re actually an entoptic phenomenon called a phosphene. It’s considered a natural self-induced hallucination, and it’s the perception of light without light actually entering the eye. Sometimes it’s caused by pressure applied to the closed eyes.
I’ve been involved with patterning in my work for a long time, but I never consciously set out to investigate it in any specific way. It was something that I was always drawn to within my painting, something that seemed to keep coming up in different forms. There is math involved with my work, but it’s also intuitive, no specific formulas or anything like that. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it is what it is. I guess I’m more specific about picking certain elements and then using them continuously in the work to try create a space. I do have some rules in place, but I think most artists set up some basic rules that they work from. To be honest, I’m not so sure that the artists you mentioned would be completely objective, just like my work is not completely subjective. But, I think what I do would be closer to alchemy than science.
Douglas Melini and his brother, circa 1977
I’ve always been interested in the way patterning is used in quilting and I attempt to achieve that quality in my work. I also like the way that the pattern allows me to keep the color in my paintings organized. Like I mentioned earlier, they’re vessels. You know an interesting thing happened to me regarding the pattern I use in these newer paintings. When I began considering how I wanted these paintings to function, I knew I wanted to eliminate all of the other patterns I was using in the older paintings and focus on just one. The grid pattern I am using was immediately my choice because of its versatility, but this pattern somehow seemed significant in a peculiar way. Sometimes in the beginning, we don’t always know why we initially respond strongly to certain things. Well, several months after I had finished the first couple of paintings, my mom sent me this box of photos from when I was kid. As I’m going through the box, I see this photo of me and my brother in our bedroom, and I was blown away by the wall paper, because it’s almost the exact same pattern that I am using in these paintings. I mean I went to sleep and woke up to this image for the first thirteen years of my life, so it makes sense that it would have burned into my mind. It was definitely information that had been absorbed prior to me using it in my paintings, and truthfully I liked the fact that I had this personal connection to the image.
As far as whether I consider myself a pattern painter, no I never have, I like things to remain more open, and specific labels really prevent that. I’ll leave the whole boxing and categorizing thing to someone else.
Douglas Melini’s exhibition It Flows Over Us Without Meaning continues at MINUS SPACE project space through December 5, 2009.