Robert Melee, Sept. 25-Oct. 17, 2002, at Andrew Kreps Gallery, 516A West 20th Street, New York, N.Y.
I don't know if Robert Melee's sensationalistic, exploitive humiliations of his mother count as good art. They may be nothing more than neo-Pop fluff with a Freudian twist. Yet Melee takes the under-visited theme of mothers and sons in art to some compelling, over-the-top, psychosexual, Oedipal zone where taboo, tragedy, humor and rage merge.
On the night of Melee's opening, his show was guarded by a gorgon, and the gorgon was Mom. You had to get by her to see the rest of the exhibition, which wasn't so easy. With thick rings painted around each eye, her face caked in pancake makeup, and hair out to here, Mumsy was a cross between Divine, a Kabuki demon and a witchy Liz Taylor. Mrs. Melee sat on a folding chair in a large raised glass box, wearing only fishnet pantyhose and a feather boa. She peered over the crowd, smoked, drank beer, and, startlingly, exposed her breasts or stood up to show that she wore no panties under her panty hose. She was all the freaks Diane Arbus ever photographed as seen by Francis Bacon. It was amazing, it was sick, and to top it all off, the artist says you can rent Mom for $6,000 an hour and "do anything you want to her."
Melee's art is abject, abusive and out-there. It's all climax and no tension. Much of the time his subject seems to run away with him. Since his last show, he hasn't really developed, only exploded, although this is to be expected from an outsider like him. To his credit, Melee melds the bad taste and impudence of John Waters, the messiness of Paul McCarthy, a schizzy version of early-'90s pathetic esthetic, a lot of raunch, a touch of madness and a dash of Eminem's ire. Curiously, as shocking as his art is, it is strangely unemotional. Yet his work feels real and close to the bone; it's not like he's just some fruitcake.
Although it would be easy to dismiss him as one after seeing "You, Me and Her," his third solo show at Andrew Kreps. Once safely past Her (Mom's opening performance preserved on video), things temporarily slow down, almost to the point of inertia. Three shiny, bumpy geometric paintings, a mobile and a collage of Mrs. Melee drinking in the first gallery are way too That '70s Show. Facelift Mommy Unit, a Judd-like wall piece outfitted with three monitors, is better but still uninteresting as an object. But the tapes of the artist's mother -- licking Plexiglas, lying underneath the artist or spreading her legs for the camera -- are more than weird enough to give you a taste of the darkness to come in the two back rooms.
In the first of them, a flat-screen monitor plays a tape of a naked young man in bed. Suddenly he's in the mother's makeup. A hand, presumably Melee's, reaches in to stroke the boy. It's just complicated enough to give pause. Better, in the same room, because it's funnier, sadder and more to the point, is Popcorn Mommy. Here, we see Mrs. Melee naked but for her boa, sitting beside a hot plate with a pan on it. As she vamps for the camera, Melee -- who resembles a nerdy Peter Sellers -- strips to his underwear, stands behind her and, alarmingly, plays with himself. He leaves, and popcorn begins flying out of the pan. "Oh shit!" she says, "It's hot! Come on Bob!" As she squirms, he cackles uncontrollably, barking, "Don't talk. Just look at the camera." It's Warhol's screen tests via Nauman's clowns.
"The Backroom," as the last gallery is titled, resembles a garish suburban rec room. Stiff painted curtains adorn one wall; Her Unit, more a piece of furniture than a sculpture, another. Alongside shelves with photographs of Mom naked in a bathtub and posing with her nude son in her lap, four TVs show Mrs. Melee seemingly fellating a sparerib, traipsing nearly naked through the woods and removing her pantyhose. On another screen, Melee drips paint on his mother's bare breasts, then daubs her pudenda.
The large question Melee's work asks is, what do we do with our parents? When it comes to literature, it seems, a lot. Writers have never been at a loss when it comes to their mothers and fathers. Perhaps because visual art is so physical, the pickings are slimmer when it comes to contemporary work. In this arena there's Janine Antoni's powerful photographic transformations of her parents, Hannah Wilke's harrowing record of her mother's battle with cancer, Matthew Barney casting his mom as a man, Richard Billingham's social work as art, Patti Chang's creepy kisses with her parents, Marilyn Minter's monstrous epiphany of her mother in bed and, at Boesky right now, Anne Olofsson's photos of her father with his hands under her sweater.
But the greatest artistic mama's boy of them all was Andy Warhol, who lived with his mother almost until the day she died, made art with her and cast her in his movies. Warhol haunts Melee's art. He's here in the grainy amateurishness of the movies, the boys-will-be-girls body swapping, the use of people as props and the tartiness. What distinguishes Melee, and may save him -- apart from the fact that he and his mother are one another's willing victims -- is his relentless gutter love.
Correction: In Jerry Saltz's Learning on the Job (9/11/02), an omission occurred in the section entitled "Lesson Five: Welcome to the Machine." The sentence reads, "At a party, not long after I had written a review of a super-successful, mid-career L.A. painter, in which I said his paintings had gone from being nicely decorative and fussy to being monotonously so, one of this painter's dealers and her director approached me from across the room." The words "out of town" were omitted before the word "dealers."
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.