When I saw Douglas Melini’s bold new work at Miles McEnery (on view until October 16), I was surprised how much it had changed since I had seen his pattern paintings in “YOU HAVE TO PEER INTO THE SKY TO SEE THE STARS,” a 2016 solo show at 11R. I reached out via email to ask him about this transformation and how it came about.
Sharon Butler: Your paintings at Miles McEnery diverge significantly from what I remember from your last solo at 11R. In the earlier show, your paintings focused on geometric shapes, primarily triangles, and dense patterns linear patterns that looked like plaid fabrics. Can you tell me how the evolution unfolded?
Douglas Melini: The pattern works that you are referring to began back in 2008, but the evolution of that work started even earlier, with a single piece that took three years to make – the first real work that I made after grad school – titled Colossus. In 2004, that piece became my first show in NYC: painting that filled a white room at White Columns.
The pattern paintings stemmed from this work. Since leaving grad school, my painting practice has been focused on a few specific things – opticality, color, structure, surface, and the idea of the micro vs the macro. Have you ever seen the Charles and Ray Eames movie Powers of Ten? It’s a very simple film about the universe. My practice has a real connection to this movie. To me, the idea that no matter how far you go in either end of the spectrum, things tend to operate in the same way, is something I’m interested in. Spaces may look different, but they vibrate at similar frequencies.
There were two types of pattern works in my 2013 show at Feature Inc. Both very much involved interior space. The more detailed grid-pattern paintings that I made were all based on the grid-patterned wallpaper in my bedroom when I was a kid. The other works were much more minimal, but they had real depth, with four triangles pointed inward to a central point. For me, these made up the micro version to the macro world in the more detailed patterned paintings.
In the show at 11R, I had large-scale versions of the patterned works that had been in the Feature Inc. show. These were accompanied by works that had a lattice or fence-like pattern or structure, with thick, gestural paint on top. Again, these works were like the micro versions of those other works. If you got microscopically close to those pattern works, like inside them, maybe they would look like that. It was all very much about the ideas of mine that were percolating in the studio, though not necessarily a direct representation of those ideas.
After that show at 11R, I wanted to suggest that this abstract space I had been making could easily be a landscape. I did this by inserting representational elements into the work – simple geometric features, such as a line or (implying landscape), a circle (sun/moon), or stars, all of which are very rooted in our visual language as well as the history of painting.
During this period, I took a trip to Oregon for a show I had at the Schneider Museum of Art.
While I was in Oregon, I spent some time in the Redwoods. Mentally I was going through a lot at that time, and the alone time in the forest really had a significant impact on me. I grew up in South Jersey, around the Pine Barrens, and being around the woods was a big part of my youth. The solitude brought up a lot of feelings and memories; it was a great trip for me.
When I returned, I wanted to explore this idea of the woods in my work. I started making the mushroom collages on the side at first. I really enjoyed making them. Once I got them to a place I was happy with, I decided to make them more object-like; that’s when I came upon the reclaimed wood as a material to use for the frame. The distressed wood allowed me to incorporate the physical landscape into the work. It also enabled me to continue to explore my interest in the frame. For years I had toyed with the idea of making the framing aspect of the work more a part of the painting and therefore the viewing experience – bringing it to the interior and making it the actual painting space rather than just the frame. The reclaimed wood really let me to push this idea.
Fast forward to this show at Miles McEnery. Conceptually, my focus and interest became the trees and the mushrooms. I really felt as though the poetic relationship between the two – in particular, the way they are connected in life and death – was important. I knew that idea was integral to everything I had done up to this point.
SB: The color has become much bolder. What inspired the color shift in the new work? Is it related to mushrooms and nature?
DM: Certainly the color in the mushroom collages serves as an inspiration for some of the color in the paintings. I’ve spent the better part of my career using and thinking about color – how it works and how we perceive it, not just in art but also in life. Experiencing color is a very personal thing: each of us brings our own experiences and memories to the table when we look at color. I always want that concept to be a part of my work.
The way these works are structured affords me a certain kind of freedom with my use of color. I can focus on three colors, or three shades of a color, in any given painting. A unique experience is created every time. The two surfaces (one being the reclaimed wood, the other being the oil paint on linen) allow the color to behave in very different ways. The transparent layers of paint reflect the light, while the thicker and more opaque surfaces absorb it. The cracks and crevices in the work allow the light to move across the surfaces, showing the range of the color from light to dark. This idea, this freedom with color, is something I have wanted to push since my first NYC show at White Columns.
“Douglas Melini,” Miles McEnery, 511 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, New York, NY, through October 16, 2021.