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Jim Melchert @ Gallery Paule Anglim

"Misfits: 4-5-4", 2011, broken porcelain tile w/glaze and ink, 18 x 18 x 3/8"

Jim Melchert, one of the few ceramic sculptors who can be credibly called a conceptualist, demonstrates once again, the infinite possibilities for the shattered tile compositions he pioneered back in the ’80s. He makes them by drawing on porcelain squares, which he smashes and reassembles. The resulting wall-mounted compositions balance randomness and intent while illustrating, in the most literal way possible, the old “truth-to-materials” credo.  For Melchert, truth has to do with the nature of clay itself: you can smash hardened pieces to bits but no two will ever break alike. Clay’s essential variability – and unpredictability – is what guides his practice. 

Unlike his prior series, Phoenix Series III: Times and Places (2008 ), which opishly arrayed blue zebra stripes in a similar format, the 22 pieces in the current show, Misfits, are built on identical grids of circles shot-through with cracks. The cracks, which mirror geological fracturing, also mimic gestural line drawing. And while we know the difference, the association between the two lingers, sowing confusion about the true nature of the plastic activity. Melchert complicates this visual drama further by superimposing on the circles and crevasses biomorphic shapes drawn in ink and glaze; all are done in a palette of earth tones. The ink, which puddles and stains the underlying substrate, animates the forms, giving the tiles, which range in size from 18” x 18” to 24” x 24”, an impish, cartoon-like character.  

“Misfits: 3-3-3”, 2011, broken porcelain tile w/glaze and ink, 18” x 18” x 3/8”
In them we can see evidence of all the influences that have shaped Melchert during his 50-plus-year career: Cageian notions of chance, Minimalist ideas of repetition, the Abstract Expressionist allegiance to bodily gesture, and Far Eastern concepts of ego-less surrender and transcendence. As Melchert put it an article he wrote last year for Studio Potter: “Change comes about under all three Hindu gods of creation. Under Brahma it disturbs, but under Shiva it wreaks havoc long before things regain stability.” As for, Vishnu, he states, it’s all about “preserving and renewing.” In Misfits, Melchert unites these contradictory forces.
My only issue is with the installation. Where the artist previously amplified the power of his individual tiles by displaying them in grids, here he wraps them around walls in a solitary row, dispersing energy that could have been better harnessed in a more intimate setting or in a symbiotic aggregation.  No matter. Looking at this roomful of broken, reconstituted tile, I felt like I was privy to a Zen joke, and a very good one at that.
Jim Melchert: “Misfits” @ Gallery Paule Anglim through July 16, 2011.
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