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Alexander Melamid

by Rachel Corbett
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“Don’t move,” the healer said, as he adjusted a small projector positioned above the exam chair, centering an image of Johannes Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring onto the palm of my hand. “Just stay still and let the art enter your bloodstream.”

The treatment is a mysterious new therapy designed to cure everything from depression to dull skin. For nausea, projecting an image of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can onto the stomach is good. Vermeer has broad applications, and is so potent that the projection can make your hands tingle. I waited -- and didn’t feel any worse. That’s something.

Okay, so the practice isn’t exactly scientific. The “healer” in this case is 65-year-old Russian conceptual artist Alexander Melamid, best known for founding the Sots Art movement -- the Soviet Union’s version of Pop art -- in the 1970s with longtime art partner Vitaly Komar. The pair painted controversial parodies of Socialist Realism and became notorious for poking fun at the art world. Now, three years since his last exhibition in the U.S., Melamid has opened his new Art Healing Ministry in a storefront at 98 Thompson Street in SoHo.

Beginning Wednesday, May 25, 2011, Melamid, looking every bit the snake-oil salesman with an impish smile and mad-scientist hair, is offering free evaluations, either on a walk-in or appointment basis. After that, he gives his treatment advice, which may include things like a visit to the Frick Collection or the Whitney Museum to view prescribed works. “Warhol’s good for repetitive stress," he says. "Caravaggio for the pancreas.”

Melamid also offers a custom slideshow of classical masterpieces that patients can view in-office, for a fee of $125, and can prescribe generic medication, i.e. art reproductions, which you can buy from his dispensary -- a printer in the back room -- for between $150 and $500. He’ll even make house calls, which involves attaching an artwork to his self-propelling Roomba vacuum cleaner and setting it spinning around your home to cleanse the air.

“We have medicinal furniture too,” he said, sitting down on a stool with an image of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon on the seat. “This one’s good for your prostate because, you know, Picasso was famous for a well-functioning prostate.”

“People are always trying to manipulate art, but to have them ingest it, make it a part of their life -- I just think this is the most interesting thing going on in contemporary art right now,” said Gary Krimershmoys, the show’s curator and founder of an art advisory firm called Quintessentially Art. Since he began working with Melamid about a year ago, the project “has taken on a life of its own.” Krimershmoys said that he and Melamid are in talks to open Art Healing Ministry centers in Dubai and Moscow, and are trying to drum up interest from museums as well.

The idea for the ministry dates back to 2003, not long after Melamid and Komar went their separate ways. Melamid had something of a crisis of faith, and decided to return to his roots. His son, a hip-hop video director, introduced him to some of his friends and soon Melamid was painting portraits of 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg and other rappers, all in an Old Master style that exalted them to the level of religious icons. “I started to paint in classical style to get back to the fundamentals of good painting,” he said.

Today, art has become its own kind of gospel, he said. We know that art basically good, but what is it good for?

Elaborating his tale, Melamid claimed to see himself becoming a kind of Dalai Lama for the art trade, certifying other healers who would open up their own franchises. “We’ll be like the McDonald’s of the art world,” he said.

Indeed, Melamid said he expects to obtain a food license that would allow the sale at the clinic of his Anselm Kiefer salami and Lucian Freud spicy jalapeno chicken sausage. His caper at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, where he and his followers performed yoga moves in a gallery filled with works by Raphael and Rembrandt, made the news a couple of months ago. The museum guards were unfazed, he said. "Yoga is sacred in California.”

When Melamid decided that I’d had enough of the Vermeer treatment, he pulled up a Paul Cézanne still life on a little monitor and instructed me to view it through a pair of goggles. He pushed a button and the eyewear started vibrating. I laughed.

“Don’t laugh,” he said, and I saw that he meant it. Melamid’s Art Healing Ministry may not be entirely serious, but it’s not a complete joke, either. “There are a lot of funny things here,” he said. “But truth-seekers are always seen as serious people and that’s not right. The truth is funny.”

RACHEL CORBETT is news editor at Artnet Magazine.