By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
The umbilical discord underpinning Robert Melee's early work is AWOL from "Poplar," his debut solo show at Ingalls & Associates.
Castrated from his arresting mommy-fixated themes, this exhibit seems sadly flaccid. Melee is, after all, best known for his sensationally sleazy films starring his naked and perpetually tanked mother Rose. Mom is a flamboyant eccentric who usually appears in raccoonlike makeup and a flea-bitten fright wig. Under her son's direction, she acts out sordid scenarios that shamelessly scratch the sore of oedipal perversity.
The conspicuously missing mother figure in his latest show sticks out like a thumb sucker's disgrace. Anyone who has seen one of the artist's home movies in which his alcoholic ma flashes her squirrel for the camera, pops balloons with her ass, or smears a sheet of Plexiglas with pounds of face paint straight off of her puckered gob is unlikely to forget the experience.
I recall nearly every searing second of some of his arresting short films I watched in 1999. Popcorn Mommy in particular laser-engraves itself onto the skull. That work depicted the grotesquely peeled Rose, lassoed in a feather boa and sitting next to a hot plate where Melee was cooking a batch of popcorn. As I watched, transfixed, a blizzard of the cloudy kernels flew out of the pan and stung the hag, who swayed in a stupor while sputtering incoherently at her son. Meanwhile the artist maniacally egged her to mug for the camera, jumping around in his underwear and flogging his genitals.
With "Poplar," Melee veers clear from airing out their dank, psychosexual, love/hate relationship, choosing instead to comb the Seventies aesthetics of the suburban American home. Upon entering the Ingalls space, visitors encounter a polychrome installation combining a pair of mannequins, a red carpet, and a set of vertical blinds colored in a gradating spectrum of enamel paint that nearly covers an entire wall. A featureless male mannequin lies on its back, raised legs spread apart, clad only in a pair of socks and a weightlifting belt. An imitation wood panel arching over the splayed form sports a mirrored underside and marbleized swirls of yellow, blue, orange, and green paint on the outer.
Off to the side, a nude female mannequin, glammed up in green eye shadow, caterpillar lashes, and high heels, holds what appears to be a stiffened enamel striped beach towel across her chest. While the male dummy is posed staring into the mirrored arc in a narcissistic reverie, the naked and overtly modest plaster nymph is posed to deflect the viewer's gaze. The scene is an example of what Melee terms Baloneyism, a phrase he coined to describe suburban dysfunction or the metaphorical manicured lawn where the glamorous and banal might collide. Unfortunately, compared to his disturbing cinematic postcards from the turbulent maternal murk, these works seem veneered in a squeaky-clean artifice that sullies his one-in-a-million mother's bloom.
Inside Ingalls's North Gallery, Emily Lutzker's "We Could Be Friends" wrestles the viewer into a delightfully loopy direction. Her large, soft sculptures scattered throughout the gallery made me think of those trick cans that send coiled snakes springing through the air. The Ding-A-Ling Thing, a huge clot of tubelike appendages suspended from the ceiling, reminded me of the campy drive-in horror flick Squirm. In the movie, a freak storm downs a power line near a backwoods worm farm. The electricity turns the night crawlers into screaming, flesh-eating predators, and the slimy creatures devour every bumpkin in sight. Lutzker's ghostly white sculptures also exude a weird-science vibe, but in a fun way. The addition of numerous doorbells to the fabric suggests the piece has a multitude of eyes and orifices, giving it a discomfiting feel.
As one wanders from piece to piece, ringing their chimes, her worms appear to communicate just like the creepier ones do in the cheesy B movie. Some of these fabric sculptures are draped like abstract human forms over PVC or metal stands and oddly echo the show's title.
Another large work, The Thing on the Wall, looks like a mutant mass of link sausages from a butcher's rack and left me licking my chops. Lutzker's hilarious video pieces are wildly entertaining while commenting on obsessive behavior, humiliation, and virtuosity in what the artist calls "the glorification of the everyday pathetic." In one work, Pants, Lutzker bends over to pick up a pair of folded jeans. A pop music medley plays as the artist struggles to squeeze into the overly tight pants. The lyrics "fat-bottomed girls," "I like big butts," and "too much booty in the pants," are heard while she thrashes about, unsuccessfully trying to make the clothes fit.
Ball Game captures the artist flashing a toothy grin, sporting lacquered hair, and humming, "Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the game." As she begins to grate the nerves, balls begin beaning her on the noggin from offscreen while she tries to maintain her cheer. As one watches, dozens of balls bounce off of her forehead until her coif runs out of steam. Lutzker engages with her spirited play an emotion somewhere between anxiety and whimsy. But be warned: It might be days before you overcome the desire to choke her for planting the infectious tune in your head.