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by Peter Plagens
Merwin Belin is deadly serious about not being deadly serious about being deadly serious. His work, which ranges from straight collage to something approaching assemblage (and way back when, Belin worked in neon as well), has a common thread of obliqueness. Whether Belin is enraged at the malfeasances of rightwing politicians, making a comment about the idiocies of the music industry, or simply riffing on a word/image coincidence, he comes at his subject from any number of tricky angles. Sometimes the trickiest angle he can come up with seems to be straight on -- but it’s never absolutely straight on. That would be deadly serious with no saving graces, and that’s the last quality he wants, or gets, in his work.

Were Belin to have an artist’s motto, it might be "Minimum physicality, maximum impact." But "impact" is yet another submarine curveball in the hands of Belin. Take Macumba Love (1998), for example. It consists merely of three printed items on paper placed in an indifferently uncentered vertical column, with the lower item overlapping the one above it. The forensic evidence -- along with a little personal knowledge of how the artist works -- suggests that Belin glued down the top component first, then fished through his incomparably oddball trove of found material to find the second, pasted it, then repeated the process with the third. The sheet music for Henry Mancini’s Theme from Love Story sits at the top and is partially occluded, at its bottom, by an off-print of a display ad for Macumba Love, a bad but not unlikeable 1960 voodoo movie. Macumba Love is, in turn, very partially obscured in the lower right by a little booklet from the 1920s or ’30s entitled, How to Make Love" Reading top to bottom, the minimal and wry (two of the trademark qualities of Belin’s work) narrative starts with Mancini’s sentimentally idealized, not to say treacly, "love," which is immediately contradicted by Macumba Love’s message that the consequences of amorousness can be worse than deadly. With the sweetest and nastiest aspects of love having been laid out, Belin then delivers his punch line: an "instructional" booklet whose presence makes the whole piece say, in essence, "You pay your money and you take your choice." Perhaps Belin’s hypothetical model might better be, "Minimum physicality, maximum wisdom." (The color, by the way, is also astute: a nominal violet-yellow opposition that splits into two yellows (bright on Macumba Love, weak neutral on the booklet) versus two reds (blue-ish on Mancini, blood-hot on the movie ad. Not for nothing did Belin get that M.F.A. and work in neon for a long time.)

Why Belin hasn’t had a whole lot of career success -- which is quite different from success in making trenchant works of art, an endeavor at which Belin succeeds admirably, albeit without nearly enough notice -- is both obvious and anybody’s guess. Always a little grumpy, but certainly a nice guy, he’s fairly cynical about much of life, including the art world. And he can’t resist saying things. Once, when he was visiting New York, and walking down a Tribeca side street on the way to get a deli cup of coffee, he approached two young men unloading a truck. One of them had on a bright, almost fluorescent, pair of new, top-of-the-line brand-name sneakers. "Nice kicks," Belin said in the patois of the moment. "Hey, thanks man," said the wearer of the shoes. As Belin passed, he added, "Don’t drop anything on ‘em." He’s also pulled the same rug-out-from-under move on dealers and critics making studio visits. That hasn’t helped. And Belin is mercilessly fast. On a long-distance phone call, when the party on the other end hesitated for about a millisecond in answering one of his questions, Belin tapped a fingernail on the mouthpiece and said, "Hello? Hello? Made by prisoners in China." This kind of unforgivingness has never helped, either.

So for decades, Belin has earned his living as a "scenic artist" -- someone who builds and paints sets for television shows. And the same attitude which has warned off establishment art dealers who might have otherwise exhibited his off-the-cuff, laser-beam works of art has at times made him, as they say in art-critical precincts, "problematic" in that profession as well. Belin was once in Las Vegas working on a set for a program to be shot there; he was carrying a ladder, some cans of paint, and some tools across a big wide cement floor. Some distance away, the former Tonight Show second banana Ed McMahon (for whom Belin, a connoisseur of low-to-middlebrow television, had always had a negative jones) was taping a promo video for a big hotel and casino. Belin dropped his stuff on the floor with a clang. A cry of protest rang out from the videotaping, "Hey, quiet! Can’t you see we’re taping an Ed McMahon video over here?" "Ed who?" Belin yelled back. 

He’s also gone out on the road as a kind of indispensable all-purpose stage/tech guy with the likes of Blondie, The Eagles, and Brian Setzer. Belin is a connoisseur of music, too. "Who else do you know," he once asked a friend, "who’s seen the Flying Burrito Brothers live. . . 68 times?" Belin also plays in an off-and-on rock band called The Jimbonaires. It consists of a few old reliable friends, a taste (if anything that Belin likes is ever truly a product of "taste") for surf guitar, the urbanized rockabilly backup to Johnny Rivers songs, and drum tracks (Belin’s instrument -- he dabbles in a reconditioned drum business he calls Duchamp Drum) that sound like a couple of tin buckets tumbling down the basement stairs. The Jimbonaires play only instrumentals. Belin once told a young, aspiring rocker, "You have more talent than 90 percent of the people in the music business. Unfortunately, talent counts for only about ten percent in success in the music business."

Belin used to carry around in his wallet a newspaper clipping about the box score of a high school tournament basketball game he played during the mid-1960s. He was high-point man for the game, which his team won. Whenever the discussion turned to which of us creaky artists who, 15 years later, played better for serious fun in Santa Monica on Sundays ten, 15 years later, Belin would signal for silence, take his wallet from his hip pocket, then remove and carefully unfold the clipping and pass it around. The gesture was ludicrous, and Belin knew it was. That’s why he always made it so slowly, deliberately and carefully.

Belin can also put rather stupefying amounts of time, effort and cool passion into works of art that aren’t "works of art." A couple of years ago, he finally finished building, from the ground up over six years, a 1932 Ford roadster hot rod. The car boasts a Corvette engine and an automatic truck transmission; it yields about two G’s of push-you-back-in-your seat force upon initial acceleration, and it gets around ten miles to the gallon of gas, highway. Save for the transmission, somewhat standard rodder qualities, one could say. But that wouldn’t count the reverent artist’s subtleties: the checkerboard flag pattern painted on the radiator so that, when seen through the grille, it’s a fuzzy changeling; the chromed beehive carburetor covers; the ridiculously oversized transparent red die gearshift knob; and, most telling of all, the hood top piece which, while nominally black, is left pitted and showing tiny craters of its previous paint jobs in red and yellow, and then coated in transparent lacquer. Belin drove it, not long ago, up to El Mirage Dry Lake Bed to watch a whole weekend of other rodders doing time trials through the measured-mile gates. He slept on the ground in a tiny mountain-climber’s tent while 40 m.p.h. winds blew sand all over everything. When he returned to Pasadena, his wife asked him what on earth he did up there all weekend. "I focused," he said.

Taking a couple of friends for a spin around Pasadena one night in his workaday car, a 1958 totally primer-grey Ford Ranchero with a chopped top and totally illegal thin Plexiglas windshield, Belin approached a stoplight on Orange Grove Boulevard. About 30 yards away from the intersection, going about 30 miles an hour, Belin said with almost icy calmness, "We’re going through." After the Ranchero had passed unscathed through the intersection, Belin turned to his passengers and explained: The big non-stock engine in the vehicle and its as-yet-unmodified brakes simply made it too heavy to come to a stop in time. "I kind of have to watch the way I drive," he said.

Belin also has to kind of watch the way he makes art. For him, it’s a delicate business: sustaining both a sneakily subversive variety of deceptively under-the-radar art that’s at once screamingly funny -- after you’ve figured it out, but before you’ve decided to suppress the scream -- and a gadfly stance, over the long haul. As we can see in this exhibition, Belin wouldn’t have been able to keep up his earnestly sideways art for so long, and to such a salutary effect, if he weren’t absolutely deadly serious about it. But of course, we know, he’s not. Except at an angle.

Merwin Belin, "School of Belin: A Mid-Career Survey," Jan. 23-Mar. 27, 2010, curated by Ron Linden at TransVagrant @ Warschaw Gallery, 600 S. Pacific Avenue, San Pedro, Ca. 90731.

PETER PLAGENS is an artist and writer. He is contributing editor for art to Newsweek magazine, and exhibits his work at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery. This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for "School of Belin: A Mid-Career Survey."