Intimacy, kitsch, sexuality, and subculture are integral themes of Robert Melee’s work. Taking his relationship to his outlandish mother as his subject, Melee’s photos, videos, installations, and performances blur the boundaries between private life and theatre. Using lurid 70s furniture Melee’s Units 1 & 2 provide a stage of eccentric domesticity: lined with personal photographs and home videos they display the mementos of his unorthodox family. Entrenched in queer culture, Melee’s work is a celebration of difference, revealing an alternative lifestyle with endearing and unabashed candour.
Making the most of embarrassment, Robert Melee’s Self Portrait encapsulates all the cringe-worthy sentiments of family photography. Inlaid within a multi-window frame, the same image of Melee’s face is replicated in each space: dull-eyed, bad haircut, painstakingly self-conscious. Reminiscent of Warhol’s multiples, Melee offers his portrait as both icon and keepsake, magnifying the nakedness of personal disclosure as a generic and empty sentiment.
When it comes to humiliating mother stories, Robert Melee wins hands down. In his photo tribute Mommy, Melee enshrines the best and the worst of his nearest and dearest: mum boozing, in the bath, as sex kitten, cabaret diva, and Madonna with her adult naked son on her lap. In portraying his maman in all her overwhelming glory, Melee exposes a familial melodrama of Sweet Baby Jane proportions, offering a heart-wrenchingly honest portrait of mother-son love, and all its resplendent dysfunction.
Throughout Melee’s work is a flirtation between reality and fantasy: family photographs look like film stills, scenarios appear scripted, and people seem as grotesque caricatures playing out clichéd roles. Using life-as-stage, Melee’s work expounds relational dysfunction, drawing the viewer as hostage-voyeur into the entangled drama. With positions firmly drawn, each party plays up to expectation, identity is validated and aggrandised through co-dependence, and all are drawn into the tragic-comic pantomime. In Smoking, random snapshots of the artist and his mother sucking fags are framed as out-takes of a life; glamourised and forgotten footage from a sad, camp movie lovingly dredged from the archive, begging for one last applause.
By Jerry Saltz
Robert Melee at Andrew Kreps Gallery
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.
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By Michael Wang
The second and final performance of Robert Melee's Talent Show last Thursday at The Kitchen drew a sold-out crowd. (At the last minute colorful pillows were thrown on the floor in front, kindergarten-style, for additional seating). The homage to current downtown performance ran the queer gamut from the haute-foppish pretension of Wayne Koestenbaum's poetry reading ("But relatedness—Winnicott, Klein?—shines in her eyes") to the pure gender-bending ridiculousness of Julie Atlas Muz's anatomically perverse "Mr. Pussy," which eschewed vagina dentata in favor of the relatively ineffectual vagina mustachio (Muz styles her "down there" as a crooning mariachi).
The Melee-designed set—tinsel, Christmas bows, pastel linoleum, and faux wood paneling—garnered its own round of applause and was quickly incorporated into the performances via Melee's ritual "marbleizing" (in pastel house paint that matched the decor) of his disrobed and heavily made-up mother. At any talent show there's the disconcerting moment when productive play rubs up against actual skill (the piano prodigy is scheduled after the singing bellies, etc.) and on this night that moment arrived with drag act Shasta Cola. Her tightly choreographed, Chelsea-friendly act (she performs at The Barracuda, a gay bar on West 22nd Street), set to Destiny's Child and avant rapper M.I.A., made use of an array of color guard props, from glittery toy rifles to hand-sewn flags, all handled with the gung ho expertise of a champion cheerleader.
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