Dawn Mellor at Team
Dawn Mellor: A Curse on Your Walls
Team Gallery until August 8
83 Grand St., between Greene and Wooster streets, 212-279-9219
The Surrealist writer André Breton once declared that beauty would have to become convulsive, otherwise it would cease to be. As if in late vindication of this injunction, the paintings of Dawn Mellor set off a chain reaction of anger and lyricism. She is an artist driven by both sociopolitical protest and ambiguous, personal longings, which makes the link with Surrealism particularly pertinent in her case. Her paintings are at the dual service of Eros and Thanatos, awash equally with alienation and empathy, desire and indignation.
Her vulgarity and iconoclasm are truly prodigious, even within the context of a popular culture that is permeated by brash assaults on traditional values. Her latest show, “A Curse on Your Walls,” has two themes, or perhaps, more appropriately in her case, targets. The first is Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” shown in six mammoth canvases, engaged in bizarre, macabre activities. The second involves a salon-style hang of 71 of Ms. Mellor’s sadistically satirical easel portraits of contemporary and historical celebrities — an ongoing series she titles “Vile Affections” — culled from cultures high and low.
An extremity of attitude comes across in both her paint handling and a visual imagination that is at once vivid and vicious. But through it all is a love of the sheer dynamics of translating mediated images into paint, of handling space, of describing details while keeping up an appearance of frenzy and desperation. She is that rare, wondrous thing: a “bad” painter who really knows how to paint.
At the younger end of the Young British Artist movement lead by Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin, Ms. Mellor came to attention at the same time as Cecily Brown, who could be described as a cooler version of Ms. Mellor’s “bad girl” update of Philip Guston. Closer to her particular fusion of the erotic and the political is American painter Nicole Eisenman, whose imagery, like Ms. Mellor’s, has a love-hate relationship with media constructions of girlhood.
The shifts in scale between the Dorothy paintings and the “Vile Affections” is galvanizing. The Oz pictures are up to 10-by-12-feet; the anti-portraits are generally 2 or 3 feet tall. Both brim with a Gothic humor that is richly disturbing. In her journey through the dark corridors of Ms. Mellor’s imagination, Dorothy survives more than the Wicked Witch of the West would have concocted for her, although certainly the West, in the geopolitical sense, has much to blame for her travails. In “Yellow Bricks Dorothy” (2007-08), for instance, the heroine triplicates into a row of slave workers schlepping bricks in wheelbarrows. In one of these manifestations, Dorothy’s head transmogrifies into a skull of harrowing beauty, another into a brick itself. In “Death Army Dorothy” (2008), she stands amidst a bombed-out city at the head of a possy of 10 gold-skinned robots, redolent of the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” Each of the robots has a white skull for a head, a pretty blue bow in the its “hair,” and Renaissance armor on its left shoulder. In “Partisan Dorothy” (2007-08), she has become a terrorist with a bloodcurdling gaze, wielding a submachine gun.
Ms. Mellor’s handling of paint is often at its most subtle and tender when her politicizing is at its most blatant and brutal. “Giant Dorothy” (2007-08) has Dorothy kneeling before a soap-bubble globe containing her longed-for Kansas homestead, floating above a blasted heath. But in a gesture that cripples the innocence of the image, she has spouted an erect penis (in the same blue gingham of her dress) that penetrates the bubble. Her face duplicates as it turns its gaze from the house to the ground, a beautifully handled passage. Around her head is a halo of burning white slogans of militant, anti-religious, anarchic character, burning bright against the dark, ominous sky, that read, “Destroy the Abrahamic Moralist Trilogy of Terror. We will establish a new state. Kill Breeders, Steal Babies.”
Ms. Mellor’s celebrity portraits are at once more extreme and more ambiguous than her Dorothy murals — despite the rape and pillage the latter entail. You are never quite sure what the criteria might be to enter her pantheon, which consists both of personalities toward whom one imagines she is politically antipathetic (Condoleezza Rice, Margaret Thatcher, Shimon Peres, Mother Theresa, and even Cherie Blair come in for rough treatment) and icons that “Friends of Dorothy” usually reserve affection for, Barbra Streisand, Billie Holliday, Audrey Hepburn, and Madonna. Madonna, in fetish gear and with smoke coming out of her ears, has gaping wounds about her body, a recurring trope in Ms. Mellor’s portraits that perhaps reflects the artist’s past as an S-and-M cabaret performer. Even feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Hélène Cixous come in for some gentle mockery.
Nicole Kidman, who has been the subject of infatuated portraits by Ms. Mellor in the past, has in this series sprouted a beard. There are abstract rays of color that intersect at the point of her left eye. Her legendary alabaster skin is afflicted by the pox. When in the past Ms. Kidman was depicted by Ms. Mellor as Judith clutching the bleeding head of Tom Cruise-as-Holofernes, the symbolism was not difficult to decode. The bearded lady, though, could mean anything — and is arguably richer for the ambiguity.
Ms. Mellor manages simultaneously to recall the ferocious politics of Sue Coe and the fey infatuations of Elizabeth Peyton. She seems intent on debunking the whole culture of celebrity while at the same time working through her individual feelings, which run an emotional gamut, toward these individuals. They are given a life in paint with which to counter the disturbingly conflicted meanings projected upon them, whether by the media or by Ms. Mellor herself.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, June 26, 2008 under the heading “The Erotic, the Political and the Personal”