Jim Melchert’s Gallery 16 Retrospective Cements His Enduring Influence

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Blue and gray stripes on repaired tile.
Jim Melchert, 'Singapore,' 2007; Broken and fired porcelain tile with glaze. (Courtesy the artist and Gallery 16)

In the billboard-sized photograph that greets visitors at Gallery 16’s entryway, a young Jim Melchert sits astride a large wooden sculpture, leaning forward, his shirt pulled over the top as if impregnated by it. The sculpture is of the lowercase letter “a”; a smaller version of the same letter “a” can be seen on a pedestal in the gallery. Both works were included in Melchert’s 1970 exhibition, a show, at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI); the photograph, taken by fellow artist Bruce Nauman, was used for the announcement poster.

In lieu of any introductory wall text, this photograph marks the onset of the artist’s enduring interest in exploring the variations on a theme, the reacquaintance and rediscovery that, as Melchert notes in the essay by writer Maria Porges for the accompanying exhibition catalog, “I think that’s how our minds work—we keep circling the same issues, but with increasing clarity and depth.”

Jim Melchert in 'a show' flier, 1970; photo by Bruce Nauman. (Courtesy the artist and Gallery 16)

The exhibition Rethink, Revisit, Reassess, Reenter, on view through Oct. 31, is in essence a mini-retrospective spanning 50 years of the 91-year-old artist’s career. It makes an argument for Melchert’s place in contemporary art history, highlighting the conceptual rigor of his long practice. If we are at this moment in time understandably reluctant to admit one more white male to the canon, the testament for Melchert’s inclusion might be found in the roster of former students’ signatures at the gallery desk, evidence of his highly consequential career spanning decades as a professor at SFAI and UC Berkeley. His tenure at these institutions was interspersed with roles as the director of the Visual Art Program for the National Endowment for the Arts and at the American Academy of Rome. In sum, Melchert’s practice as an artist is inextricable from the agency that he created for other artists.

The earliest works on view date to 1970; the most recent were made a month ago. Included are two early filmed performances, Changes, Amsterdam (1972) and Untitled (The Water Film) (1973). Installed opposite each other, they are variations on themes of fluidity and slowness. In Changes, participants submerge their heads in a large container of slip (clay in liquid form), their discomfort increasingly apparent as caricature-like vessels harden around their features. The stillness of drips arrested mid-flow around hair and beards and noses is punctuated by the fidgety hands resisting the urge to break free from the entombment.

In The Water Film, by contrast, two drenched, nude figures pirouette in a looping slow-motion pas de deux, hurling buckets of water at each other. They leap, combative and ebuillant, as the arcs of water form a visible circumference around them. In both works, the sensual beauty of liquid flowing across bodies conflicts with the violence that erupts or solidifies as it meets them.

Jim Melchert, Still from 'Untitled (The Water Film)," 1973; 2:19 minutes. (Courtesy the artist and Gallery 16)

This conceptual framework, in which there is a juncture where things break instead of bend and the rupture is irrevocable, extends to the ceramic works that dominate the exhibition. For decades, Melchert has used commercial tiles that he has broken, glazed, and re-assembled into reliefs and grids. The cracks and fissures flow across the linear compositions, the glazed striations or dots pulling attention to where the fractures have occurred. The breaks reveal the invisible, individual weaknesses in the bonds of the apparent uniformity of these fabricated tiles. It is a drawing practice in clay. In the same way that a mark alters the surface on which it is made, these cracks speak to their own making irreducible from their material.

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The results from these gestures of fracture and reassembly are stunning. One of the earliest examples, Drawing With Red Extensions (1994), is equal parts understated and profound. On the unglazed surface of the terracotta tiles, Melchert drew lines in red crayon where he had assumed the cracks might occur but didn’t. After composing the tiles into a grid, he then drew lines in red paint that connected the cracks together, completing a circuit of energy that vibrates through the whole.

In the more recent Singapore (2007), blue lines undulate until they hit the cracks and then change direction. The resulting folds and waves suggest fabric worn and folded at the points where the body meets itself. Sensuousness alternates with structure, a studied contrast that Melchert evokes again and again: light against dark, fluidity against rupture; chance against composition; a coming apart and restitution that is riotous and harmonious all at once.

Jim Melchert, 'A Letter From England,' 1977; Graphite on paper, 24 x 19 inches. (Courtesy the artist and Gallery 16)

The most notable contrast lies between his artistic work and institutional positions, where one sees an investment in creating deep, durable bonds. Art history, however, has largely been a narrative almost exclusively of object makers and not of administrators. Melchert himself acknowledges this, noting in Porges’s essay the difficulty of “getting back a seat on the bus” when one steps away from the strict parameters defining an artist. This sentiment echoes in one of the koan-like handwritten notes in the 1977 rubbed drawing, A Letter From England: “An empty envelope from China that was never mailed.” It is a poignant statement of unrealized possibility, a question of what potential story might have once been written.

We, however, can envision a trajectory in which a widespread acknowledgment of Melchert’s contributions to contemporary art not only gives him his due, it shatters the dominant framework about whom art history is told. His inclusion would enable an altered narrative that makes visible the collective, cooperative work necessary for art’s production. That would be a different story, hardly linear, yet far more harmonious and beautiful.

‘Jim Melchert: Rethink, Revisit, Reassess, Reenter’ is on view at Gallery 16, in San Francisco, through Oct. 31. There will be a talk with the artist at the gallery on Saturday, Oct. 9, at 2pm. Details here.