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Robert Melee

by Elizabeth Kley
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Decked out in Comme des Garçons shorts, a Philip Lim shirt and a tan leather neckpiece of his own design, artist/provocateur Robert Melee opened “Triscuit Obfuscation,” his darkly exuberant sixth solo show, last week at Andrew Kreps Gallery in Chelsea. "I like to come up with titles that sound strange," Melee said, sipping tequila out of an elegant pocket flask and then passing it around. "My titles are humorous and confusing, yet poetic -- Baloneyism, Inbetween False Comfort, Unshamelessfulnessly. . . ."

Shamelessness certainly runs in Melee’s family -- he’s probably most well known for displaying his mother, heavily made up, nearly naked, bewigged (she’s something of an exhibitionist and used to be quite a drinker), polishing off bottles of beer in a cage for a solo exhibition in 2002.

Melee’s mom was also the star of quite a few disturbing videos, but she’s retired from appearing in his work. Instead, Melee has been concentrating on sculptures and installations featuring mannequins, furniture and appliances enveloped in weighty solidified drips of bright enamel paint, as if color has turned into some kind of alien invasive disease.

The new exhibition, however, contains lots of raucous new videos that bring Paul McCarthy to mind, albeit without the excrement and violence. Some are shown on monitors on walls and others are seen on small screens within a pair of new "units" -- Melee’s name for the large-scale pieces of furniture he’s been making since the late 1990s that are filled with photographs, videos and evidence of bygone erotic, alcoholic debauchery and masquerade.

The main space of Andrew Kreps Gallery was entered through Passage, a small, darkened hallway lined with black plastic garbage bags. Inside was a three-channel video installation called Windowing, Slower, Peephole (2011). Melee’s camera witnesses an angry, lovelorn woman ranting in front of a locked door in a tenement hall, lingers on a naked man, and gradually zooms in on an apartment window to spy on a couple inside having sex, screened by a window-gate that protects them from burglars but doesn’t offer privacy.

As if passing through a nightmare to reach an uninhibited party where fantasies come true, this hellish little hall opens into Parlor, a brightly lit, carpeted gallery where four of Melee’s visually overloaded sculptures are installed. The passage turns out to be the underside of Stairs, 2011, an oversized model of the staircase in Melee’s childhood suburban home, trimmed with his signature colorful marbleizing. "It’s a monumental staircase leading nowhere," Melee explained, "with a dark and intimidating belly the viewer is forced to walk through."

The unit’s shelves are filled with empty and full liquor bottles and upright and overturned glasses and plastic cups. Plenty of framed videos and snapshots of bizarre activities can also be seen, some incorporating photos of the house where Melee grew up (which was recently sold). Process Unit, 2011, features a film of a model in bathing trunks stoically sitting in a chair as he’s doused with paint, spaghetti, tomato sauce, eggs and, finally, a pie in the face.

"This show makes me feel like I should be wearing a raincoat," artist Michael Mahalchick commented appreciatively. "Goop everywhere, people fucking, tinsel. . . . It reminds me of, an adult website for men who like men getting messy."

Another small movie features an anonymous model with an impressive erection twirling in a headdress made from metallic garlands and yellow feathers that completely covers his face and shoulders. During the opening, a young man appeared nude on the stairs with the same regalia on his head (for Melee, live entertainment is always a must). Joseph Keckler -- an up-and-coming classically trained singer with a four-octave range who sometimes sounds like Paul Robeson -- also serenaded the crowd, belting out Rain Down Rain, a blues tune by Big Maybelle.

After the performance, Melee’s riotous artistic memorial to a million exhausted festivities was abandoned in favor of a celebratory dinner at Don Quixote restaurant, the cathedral of Catalan kitsch that’s long been next to the Chelsea hotel. A beaming Marilyn Minter (Melee’s teacher at SVA), Ricky Clifton (interior designer for clients including Philip Glass, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, Philip Taaffe and the owners of Zwirner and Wirth) and performer Justin Vivian Bond (once Kiki of Kiki and Herb and now gone beautifully solo) were among the attendees.

When asked for another song after dinner, Keckler took comments about the show from the audience, and turned them into an impromptu a cappella aria, singing, "Growing up, throwing up, naked boys on stairs. . . ." And dealer Andrew Kreps made a speech thanking his artist for "a killer show that’s worth all the insanity."

"I’m going to enjoy," he continued, "lying on the stairs, talking on the phone, and hopefully selling a lot of work." Prices range from $15,000 to $50,000.

Robert Melee, “Triscuit Obfuscation,” Sept. 15-Oct. 22, 2011, at Andrew Kreps Gallery, 525 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.