In 1972 Jim Melchert was invited to participate in an international ceramics conference in the Netherlands. A former UC Berkeley student of Peter Voulkos, the renowned expressionist ceramicist, Melchert had already acquired a reputation for creating works that were moving clay out of the decorative realm and into the contemporary avant-garde. His contribution to that event was a performance called Changes, Amsterdam, in which he dunked his head into a bowl of liquid clay and allowed it to dry. A photograph of that event is one of the earliest entries in Rethink, Revisit, Reassess, Reenter, a 50-year survey of Melchert’s career. It traces how the artist returned to and elaborated on a few themes – even as his interests and values changed.
Untitled, The Water Film, a video made a year later, demonstrates how Melchert merged his interest in materiality with the conceptual and performative ethos that was then in force. It shows two of his UC Berkeley students in a water fight, nude and in slow motion, flinging buckets of water at each other. The piece reads, alternately, as a tribute to the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and a slapstick take on heterosexual discord.
Three works from 1977 show the influence of Fluxus. Onto 24 x 19-inch sheets of paper, Melchert made graphite rubbings of envelopes and their contents. Traditionally, rubbings make visible texts or drawings originally executed on stone; they are to drawing what photograms are to photography. Melchert’s treatments granularly depict the interior and exterior features of the envelopes, along with pieces of the artist’s handwritten text, most likely taken from letters the envelopes once contained. They show Melchert deconstructing, depersonalizing and reconstituting the contents of human communication – themes that were staples during that era.
The bulk of the exhibition consists of works Melchert made using purchased commercial tile. Once again, he broke a taboo by using store-bought ceramics. Operating under the influence of Zen and the chance practices he learned during travels in Japan, Melchert, in the early 2000s, developed a technique for dropping tiles without shattering them. The filigreed cracks resulting from this process became the basis for an evolving set of rules Melchert used to create art. Onto some tiles, he drew perfect circles whose circumferences had to touch at least two cracks. On others, he placed drops of colored glazing at the intersection of two cracks. The results suggest Japanese cherry-blossom scenes in configurations where the artist mounted two to eight tiles in square or rectangular formats. Rather than limiting the artist, these rules liberated Melchert by enabling a seemingly endless variety of lyrical configurations, all determined by chance.
The exhibition ends with two impressive bodies of new work. One group of single-tile pieces, Shards Speaking for the Group (2021), reaches a new level of serenity and simplicity reminiscent of the openness found in late de Kooning paintings. With blank space setting off the colors, these single-tile, cracked and glazed works leave ample uncolored space, enhancing the energy of the dancing shapes that tip-toe or lean against the sides of the square picture plane.
Finally, Melchert offers half a dozen (8 x 8-inch) floor pieces called Mirror Boxes (2020). Each contains broken porcelain tiles colorfully glazed and placed at the bottom of mirror-lined boxes. Looking down into them, we see reflections emanating in every direction, hinting at ephemeral glimpses of infinity. Having recently observed his 91st birthday, Melchert, a beloved mentor and exemplar, might well be considering such a weighty theme.
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Jim Melchert: “Rethink, Revisit, Reassess, Reenter,” @ Gallery 16 through October 30, 2021.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his new book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020.