The mouth is an orifice that features prominently in Mel Chin’s work. Viewers to the exhibition are greeted by an open mouth, tongue outstretched.
Protruding from the front of a freestanding temporary wall, this is the front half of Shape of a Lie (2005), a sculpture in cast bronze and pipestone. If the mouth is a beautiful front, the exaggerated internal anatomy suggested by the forms on the other side are all bilious excrescences. Chin plays out this concept of the double-sided nature of truth throughout this exhibition, often activating museum walls as integral parts of his questioning, moralistic approach to any and all subjects. In the survey exhibition organized by James Harithas for the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Chin presents himself as the Cheshire Cat of the art world, displaying a variable grin that surfaces as an image several times in the show and which resonates throughout as a changeable attitude fluctuating from menacing to cajoling, ecstatic to mournful.
Chin took his exhibition title from a Pablo Neruda poem, perhaps because, like Neruda, two crosscurrents eddy throughout his worldview. One is a romantic penchant for surrealistic juxtapositions of unrelated objects. The other is an agitated, moral response to social issues. The dynamic tension between these two poles makes for art that is as compelling as it is uneven. The Shape of a Lie is both beautiful and an effective critique because it materializes the identity of venality out of thin air. The speaker is never pictured, but both the title and the velvet rope and stainless steel stanchion that cordons off the rear portion of the sculpture conjure overtly political associations. Chin has constructed the visual equivalent of a fill-in-the-blanks sentence, according viewers responsibility for activating the piece by completing the thought behind it.
The best work in this show crystallizes myriad ideas in a similar fashion, always suggesting without resorting to straightforward depiction. Chin’s ambitious, room-sized installation pieces, Render (2003) and Loom (2005), are the least satisfying in this regard. President Bush’s pouty visage, eyes and mouth framed by black velvet as if he were wearing the ski mask that is a terrorist’s trademark, is both well-painted and a political portrait in the best Hans Haacke tradition. But while it evokes quite successfully Haacke’s stinging critiques of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, its blunt frontality and agitprop obviousness also demonstrate the limitations of that approach. Loom speaks more generally about political oppression and repression, but here Chin’s chosen metaphor — strings of broken light bulbs suspended over a dirt pit marked by hundreds of pairs of eyes — is simply not capable of sustaining the emotional intensity he seeks.
My favorite pieces, such as Rafetus Euphraticus and Our Strange Flower of Democracy (both 2005), manage the difficult feat of achieving both aesthetic and satiric eloquence through strategies of nonspecificity. The former is a wire sculpture approximating the carapace of the endangered Euphrates softshell turtle. Over this armature Chin has stretched fine French and Iraqi lingerie; form and content collide here like ships in the night, and the result is poetry that, like Neruda’s best poems, fuses beauty with urgency to create a sense of activism. Suspended from the ceiling, Our Strange Flower of Democracy reinvents the BLU-82 Daisy Cutter bomb in bamboo, jute, sisal, coir, and bottle caps. Dislocated from the impersonality of its mass-produced reality, Chin’s sculpture hovers like a sinister animus, an angel of what is definitely not our better nature.
Chin is an excellent draftsman, and some of the best works in this show are drawings. Guantanamo (2003) grounds torture atrocities in the form of a figure taken from a study by William Dyce (1806-1864) after Dominichino’s frescoes at the monastery at Grottoferrata. This classic form, drawn by Chin in a revival of classic Rennaisance style, is both visually beautiful and politically eloquent. In other works, Chin adopts a punchy graphic approach, as in the cartoon novella 911-911 (written and drawn by Chin under the pseudonym Ignacio Moreless), which constructs parallel stories out of the startling coincidence linking the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Towers (9/11/2001) and the US-backed attacks on Augusto Pinochet’s Presidential Palace (9/11/1973). Some of his best drawings take the form of erasure, as in the wonderful series Erased Currency (1995-1996), where the major iconography of American money is rubbed off while obscure details that most of us never notice are retained and elevated into the bill’s exclusive subject matter.
Very few pieces in this show are similar in appearance, materiality, or content, but if Chin is all over the lot politically and aesthetically, the point of view that emerges from this show is like a signature, singular and recognizable from piece to piece. Chin is an able vocalizer, quite capable of enunciating issues, but he is at his best when his solutions are poetic, least effective when he becomes merely topical. Both the 2005 wall sculpture Terrapene Carolina (Hillbilly Armor) and the 2002 wall relief Wheel of Death feel ripped from the headlines; hovering about them is a 60-Minutes -like breathlessness that may be a defining characteristic of exposé journalism but which is fundamentally at odds with aesthetic construction. Still, given the conservative tenor of our times, it is invigorating to be reminded that at its best art is often about taking chances with big subjects.
Images courtesy The Station Museum of Contemporary Art
Christopher French is an artist and writer living in Houston.