NEW ORLEANS — Considering that one of Mel Chin‘s most audacious works appeared before an audience of millions on network television over a two-year period, it’s curious that he’s not more of a household name.
That piece, “In the Name of the Place” (1995–1997), ran during the original primetime broadcast of Melrose Place and has continued ever since whenever the series has been syndicated. Conceived as a collaboration with a group of art students and faculty in Georgia and Los Angeles, the project consisted of 200 objects that were “covertly installed” as props and set decoration in the series.
Hiding in plain sight before the viewing audience were such subversive objects as a Chinese food takeout bag with slogans from the Tiananmen Square protests printed on it and paintings depicting notorious celebrity death scenes. Also included was a homespun-looking quilt embroidered with the molecular structure of RU-486, the so-called “morning after pill” then current in the news, which one character was seen wrapping herself in as she chatted on the phone about her pregnancy. If you’ve ever wondered about the point where Hollywood actress Heather Locklear and conceptual art intersected, now you know.
Before the term viral was widely used to denote an alternative means of dissemination through established media channels, the artworks and their insertions that comprised “In the Name of the Place” represented the very definition of the term. (Chin, for what it’s worth, disavowed the work’s status as a “subversive” one, positioning it instead as a new model by which artists could participate in cultural production and dialogue within a mass media context. But given how politically charged objects like that takeout bag and quilt were, it’s difficult to view them as anything but.)
Over the course of four decades, Chin has sharpened a brand of art making that is at once both socially engaged and visually engaging. For some conceptual artists, art is less about the objects that are produced than the ideas and processes involved in creating them. But Chin is no barren theorist. While he explores some weighty concerns in his work — including environmental catastrophes, urban blight, violent crime, colonial atrocities, and the inequities of American foreign policy, to name just a few — the objects that result are formally compelling and often informed by a mischievous sense of humor.
But Chin’s relative lack of notoriety among a larger general public isn’t surprising. For all of his community-based artistic interventions and media appearances (including a segment on PBS’s Art21 a few years ago), he maintains an appealingly self-effacing low profile. His art tends to refrain from a signature style, so it isn’t readily apparent that the same artist who created the utilitarian-looking “Revival Field” earthwork (1991) on a toxic landfill in St. Paul was also responsible for making a series of eerily stunning jewel-encrusted facsimiles of bullet and shrapnel wounds. And the fact that he’s never been accorded a major museum retrospective until now likely hasn’t helped matters much either.
Fortunately, the latter oversight has been corrected by the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) with Rematch, its delightfully sprawling survey of Chin’s work over the last four decades. Curated by NOMA’s Miranda Lash, it’s as much a testament to the exuberance of Chin’s oeuvre as it is to the ongoing vitality of the museum’s contemporary art program under Lash and NOMA director Susan Taylor.
New Orleans is an additionally fertile setting for Chin’s first museum retrospective as it was also the initial location of what has turned out to be one of his best-known and most far-reaching projects. Chin’s “Safehouse” (2008) was constructed in New Orleans’ economically disadvantaged Seventh Ward during the Prospect.1 biennial barely three years after Hurricane Katrina when scars from the storm still ravaged the city; the massive bank vault door, and the stacks of colorful “Fundred Dollar Bills” it was designed to protect, appear side-by-side in the NOMA show and were originally part of a larger project Chin devised to draw attention to the dangers of lead poisoning in poor neighborhoods in New Orleans and other urban areas nationwide.
“Safehouse” achieved another moment of more unwelcome notoriety a few years later when Chin removed the door from the house and the art promoter who helped bring it to the neighborhood allowed the vacant structure to fall into a perilous state of disrepair. For its own part, and to its credit, the exhibition alludes to the controversy in the wall label for “Safehouse,” though you’ll have to read about the situation elsewhere (this previous Hyperallergic post is a good place to start) if you want to learn more about it in any sort of detail.
While you can’t blame the show for not dwelling on the less-than-rosy coda to the “Safehouse” project in situ — after all, it wasn’t the artist’s fault that the owner of the property in which it was installed later skipped town, and Chin himself went through some lengths to defend himself from the brouhaha — it does underline how Rematch consistently casts Chin in the role as artist-as-visionary hero.
Trouble is (or not), it’s hard to find fault with that assertion. Even when his ideas approach the esoteric or obscure, Chin remains a fundamentally likeable artist, and one who’s at least willing to meet you halfway in your attempt to appreciate and enjoy his work. Try saying that about a Richard Serra or Jeff Koons.
Chin is so routinely referred to as a “conceptual artist” that it’s easy to forget how appealing (and occasionally gorgeous) his work can be. Fortunately, or cannily, Rematch also focuses attention more squarely on Chin’s objects than on the ideas behind them.
The focus is apparent as soon as you step into NOMA’s neoclassical Great Hall, where Chin’s enormous “Our Strange Flower of Democracy” (2005) hangs suspended from the center of the skylit ceiling. The sculpture represents a full-scale replica of a BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” bomb, which the United States used in wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan as a means of quickly clearing a forested area. Chin’s version is made of bamboo and coconut twine, and it explodes with flower-like forms instead of shrapnel. It’s almost friendly looking, something you might find on display on a much smaller scale in a Pier 1 Imports retail store, if it weren’t supposed to evoke a weapon of mass destruction.
The piece is also intended to call to mind the way that Western military items were repurposed and refashioned by Melanesian cargo cults as objects of superstition and veneration far removed from their original intentions. And as is frequently the case with Chin’s work, the allusions don’t stop there: the wall text also informs us that the blossom-shaped explosions are meant to evoke hemlock flowers, which we’re reminded were used in Socrates’ nightcap of choice when it came time to kill himself as his ultimate critique of democracy.
(Speaking of that wall text, Rematch is careful not to bombard the viewer with too much expository information, though a few pieces in the show could benefit from a little more background: when I visited the week after its opening, there was no explanation provided for such cryptic pieces as “Scholar’s Nightmare”  and “Shape of a Lie” . Hopefully NOMA will address those and other omissions before the show closes, and in the meantime the excellent catalogue helps fill in the gaps.)
“Our Strange Flower of Democracy” is a strange flower indeed, and one whose multiple layers of significance might be stifling if the object itself weren’t so engaging, bathed as it is in the diffuse light of NOMA’s entrance hall. It’s the first of several examples of works in the show that are saved from being gratuitously abstruse by their sheer craftsmanship and sense of playfulness.
The concept of play is made literal in “KNOWMAD” (2000), which gets its own gallery: it’s a video game which visitors are invited to play themselves, or watch someone else play on a projection screen. The action, which involves racing around a pixelated landscape made from carpet designs created by nomadic groups in Anatolia and throughout Asia in order to focus attention on the threatened existence of their communities, won’t be replacing “Call of Duty” anytime soon. But it’s a lot more fun to play than it sounds.
That same sense of audience involvement is evident in the way “In the Name of the Place” is installed in the NOMA show, which provides a mini-living room set up (complete with comfy sofa) for visitors to watch a loop of “Melrose Place” clips in which the objects Chin and his collaborators produced are featured. A few of those objects — most of which were sold at auction to benefit arts education institutions after they were used on the show — are displayed nearby. (That morning after pill quilt is actually quite lovely.)
Chin’s playfulness and craft also contribute to the appeal of the installation which caps Rematch: the monumental “Funk & Wag from A to Z” (2012), previous iterations of which were exhibited in Houston and Asheville, North Carolina, over the past two years. The “Funk & Wag” room consists of 524 collages made from every illustration in twenty-five volumes of a vintage Funk & Wagnall encyclopedia, which were cut up and meticulously reconfigured in order to, in Chin’s words, “unleash the potentiality of images trapped by historical context.”
The piece has any number of art historical antecedents (Max Ernst’s La femme 100 têtes is the one that most immediately comes to mind). Yet its formal rigor — with the exquisitely detailed collages arranged in floor-to-ceiling columns by volume number implicitly critiquing the ways “authoritative” information is collected, catalogued, and presented — marks it definitively as Chin’s own, and is a visual tour de force in an exhibition filled with several high points.
And it’s a fitting end to a beautifully presented exhibition that more than makes up for lost time as far as Chin’s institutional record is concerned. You might begin Rematch with a scattershot understanding of the work that has made Chin one of our more compelling contemporary artists, but it’s likely you’ll leave the exhibition with a better understanding of how it all fits together … and wanting to see where he takes it from here.