“As a small child I told my Grandmother I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but did not want to spend it locked away in an attic.” ~ Melanie Vote
If you have ever fancied the idea of smashing your mother’s beloved collection of Precious Moments figurines, I cannot blame you. Artist Melanie Vote, a child of the American Heartland, will not point the finger at you either—she may even encourage you to do so. As long as Melanie is free to walk the streets, no porcelain ballerina, bunny or lamb is safe in your family’s home.
This iconic figurine of American consumerism and banality has inspired Melanie to create a new series of paintings called Lost and Found. This collection of work, including a life size replica of a Precious Moments figurine by Melanie, will be on view in the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University. This is the artist’s first solo show at the gallery. The Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery is located on 2039 Kennedy Blvd. Hepburn Hall, room 323, in Jersey City, NJ.
The opening reception is March 16, 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. The exhibition will be on view from March 16 to April 21, 2010. Join the artist for a discussion about her work in the gallery on April 12, 2011, at 4:30 p.m.
I recently caught up with Melanie to discuss her new exhibition, the role nostalgia plays in her work, and the wide-open space of America’s heartland.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
I am a painter predominately.
When did you first become interested in painting and drawing?
I always drew, daydreamed and drew, as the youngest of three, growing up on a farm in rural Iowa—it was how I occupied myself. As a small child I told my Grandmother I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but did not want to spend it locked away in an attic. My first real memory of drawing involves being punished after drawing all over a freshly painted hallway, my parents did not believe in spanking, but this act warranted an exception; my father was so furious. Of course we laugh about it today!
You hail from Iowa. I got drunk at a gas station in Des Moines once. What brought you to the east coast?
Funny, Was it the Flying J truck stop? I came to attend graduate school at NYAA [New York Academy of Art], vowed to leave after, but became more and more infatuated with New York, and stayed to develop my career.
What made you want to flee the east coast?
It all just seemed excessive, the massiveness of the city, the never ending shopping mall feeling, the inability to never really be alone. But I quickly became taken by all the advantages of being here. The list is long but namely the museums, galleries and the richness of all different cultures living together.
All kidding aside, Iowa is one of the most progressive places in the United States, and it is host to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Some of my favorite writers passed through the workshop, including Flannery O’Connor, Thom Jones, and Raymond Carver. What is Iowa’s secret, and why does lure such great artists?
The space, the unending horizon line. The flat lands allow one to see for miles, this giving way to enormous skies- creating a feeling of openness, clarity perhaps. Being there is very grounding for me. I have to visit at least once a year. I was born there rather than lured, it was a really amazing place to grow up, a lot of time for daydreaming and play.
Tell us about your solo exhibition, Lost and Found, at the Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery at New Jersey City University. What was lost, and who found it?
I want the work to elicit these questions. The work is partially about memory and loss- remnants of childhood. The lost part also reflects my growing concern for our country’s loss of innocence, and an overall concern of the human condition. The found part relates to all these problems that future generations will inherit out of our lack of contemporary social concerns. The imagery is metaphoric foreshadowing of what may become of our overindulgent civilization. The landscapes are null time- a place where the past present and future all coalesce.
The loss of innocence intrigues me, as a theme in art and life. When you say our country lost its innocence, are you thinking of a specific thing? If so, what is it? And do you think art can help to heal this loss?
I guess this is not anything new; more my of my own realization of so many things are just wrong and unjust. Actually the entire history of our country has been filled with atrocities from taking away land from natives and building a new world with enslaved people. This has repeated itself over and over again throughout history, not just American history. Even though I feel privileged to born here and that I have never had to live through the atrocities of war, I just wish our country would not have to take on the role of policing the world instead of taking better care of it’s people.
There are just so many problems to list. The lack of affordable health care to middle income people our reliance on crude oil, lack regard to recycling and reusing. The list is too long, I do not have any grand solutions to these ills of society, just observing and hoping people will do their part in any way they can to make things better. Art may not heal, but hopefully it will create awareness, that may motive change.
What work is on view, and why should people come out to see it?
Seven small paintings and one large one will be seen all together for the fist time. Also I will be showing three-dimensional work for the first time. Two maquettes will be on display as well as a number of drawings and plein air studies. Most importantly I just completed a 40” tall sculpture that directly reflects imagery in the painting- that is the most unusual work for me, and am interested in seeing the response.
What is the relationship between your paintings and sculptures? Does one inform the other?
Yes, the sculptures inform the paintings. I build maqettes, mainly so I can observe the light on the form. This observed element is intended to create a level of believability of a real world. The foray in to sculpture is somewhat new, growing out of the maquettes, though my under graduate focus was in three-dimensional work.
Much of your work is inspired from children’s toys, especially Precious Moments figurines. My older sister (she will remain nameless) had a modest collection of these collectibles—girls, lambs, and bunnies—in the late seventies. I hated them, and what they were about—sentimental, decorative, and precious. These creatures survive today—some thirty odd years later—inside a shadow box on the top shelf in the computer room of my mother’s home. What role does nostalgia play in your work?
I hate them too, hate them and love them at the same time. For me they are the ultimate symbol of kitsch. Many of them have religious themes, but at the same time depict children as pseudo-sexualized objects. I received the one that has been seen in a number of the works as a gift from my oldest sister when I was age 13. The figure is a blonde doe eyed ballet dancer and in meant to be a Christmas tree ornament. Her back is arched, with tutu- tutu flipped up in the back exposing her little posterior. Hmm…what a loaded message in this tiny little thing.
Art history has a long tradition of sexualizing children. Balthus comes to mind. I am thinking of two paintings in particular—Girl with Cat and The Living Room. Who is the audience for these paintings, and what is he trying to communicate about human behavior?
Balthus’ audience was other artists, art historians and literary figures. He was adored and encouraged at a young age by Rainer Marie Rilke, one of his mother’s lovers. From what I understand he saw these girls as virginal empowered sexual agents, and those viewers that found dis- ease by looking at them, revealed more about their own discomfort or issue with sexuality. Perhaps he is communicating that individuals what we want to, or what they are conditioned to, in every work of art and every life situation.
Precious Moments elicits a certain type of hostility in me. I want to smash them with a ball-peen hammer. That being said, I am a sucker for religious figurines. I have several statues of Catholic saints (Jude, Patrick, Francis, Rocco, Anthony, Bridget), Buddha, and Vishnu. What is a cheap toy to one person is a personal icon or talisman to another. What attracts you to these figurines, and why do you want to remake them?
I understand the hostility; these things are evil saccharin-sweet little religious icons. I plan to create a large one in order to create ruins of; perhaps you can help me smash it. They are horrible. These are the sorts of thing that become collected and cherished by many in Middle America. To me they are the embodiment of all the outlandish attributes of our culture’s consumerism, lack of concern for larger world issues, and my God is bigger and better and in this case – cuter, than yours.
Let me know when you want to smash some stuff up. I am game. Breaking cute things… this could be cathartic. Have you ever considered adding an element of performance in you work?
Yes, this summer I plan to burry the work then stage a faux excavation. I am hoping this will happen at a residency where people would visit. I will keep your offer in mind and let you know where it takes place!
I’ve been thinking about your series Lost and Found. It depicts the future ruins of America. Is your work a type of mediation on mortality? What do you hope the audience takes away from your paintings and sculptures?
Perhaps just to ask themselves how they can be part of the solution rather than the perpetual cycle of problematic overindulgence. How can we convert to different ways of living, avoiding use of oil, reusing and recycling, etc.
Kitsch inspires many contemporary artists, including Jeff Koons, Yoshitomo Nara, and Takashi Murakami. Do you see your work as a parody or exaltation of American consumer culture?
A parody I guess. I find it sort of disheartening that this is what is embraced, and is what will remain.
Jeff Koons’s sculpture, Bear and Policeman, is a life-size carved wood sculpture. He said the Hummel, the German counterpart to Precious Moments figurines, inspired the sculpture. Koons remarked: “I don’t see a Hummel figurine as tasteless, I see it as beautiful. I see it and respond to the sentimentality of the work. I love the finish, how simple the color green can be painted. I like things being seen for what they are. It’s like lying in the grass and taking a deep breath. That’s all my work is trying to do, to be as enjoyable as that breath.” Do you admire Precious Moments as aesthetic objects?
As I mentioned before, it is a love hate relationship. They [Precious Moments figurines] are alluring at first, even cute, but I have such a distain for their pastel palette and the shallow religious message they carry. Just sugar coated Americana, “every thing here is so happy and perfect, and if you just except Jesus as your savior, your life will be perfect” Even with this sense of disdain I idealize my childhood.
You have described your work as portraying the post-apocalypse. Your vision of the wasteland is much rosier than Cormac McCarthy’s. In McCarthy’s view, dead babies spit-roast on a makeshift rotisserie in ashen woods. In your view, tufts of green grass flutter and swell in a summer breeze as linens dry on a clothesline under the midday sun. Is light a metaphor for God in your work? Do you believe in a benevolent power of the universe, and if so, does this belief inform your art?
The truth is, my work is a far cry from reality, I do not really think an actual post apocalyptic scene would look anything like this, it is more metaphor for making the best of what life presents and human resilience.
None of what I depict is actual real; there are no hollow doll like sculptures the size of the Colossus of Rhodes placed upon the mid-western landscape. If there were to be some apocalypse or natural disaster what would actually remain would be highway, grain elevators, ethanol plants a flame and some of those beautiful wind turbines partially erect.
Life turns upside down for people in many ways, and all that’s left are scraps and people somehow survive. Haiti for example, somehow the people keep holding on… just thinking of what they have endured.
This sort of whimsical undertone seen in the painting is perhaps how I cope with fears that I actually have of what is really going on the world—this never ending chaos.
The God question is big, I believe in lots of things, but wish not to expand here. Historically speaking light and the hierarchy of it on the picture plane has served as a sense order and a presence of God. I have a deep reverence for Renaissance and Baroque painting, and feel the need to create this sense of order with the light to create visual clarity. It is an adopted language.
I am curious about your landscapes. The application of paint is direct, immediate, and vigorous. Did you paint these scenes outdoors in the open air?
I do paint outside when I can, the experience is vastly important. Some of the works start there, some start working from models in the studio then I have to seek out a landscape that works with cast figure. I started painting outside after my family no longer lived in the exact region I grew up in. I developed a real interest in the flatness of the plains. Painting outdoors changed my painting technique immensely.
How has painting outdoors changed your painting technique?
Plein air painting is an athletic event of sorts…or maybe a bit like hunting, fishing, or farming. One has to be prepared: palette mixed, location scouted out in advance, up before dawn to capture something. After that, all you can do is show up, and go for it. There is a sense of urgency to capture the moment and see—not really think but just do. A certain flow happens or hopefully does. Self-consciousness leaves and a real connection to what is present happens. With this sense of urgency, there is no time to judge.
Also I really enjoy being outside and feeling the elements—dirt, wind, bugs, sun—it all feels very natural.
If all goes well I drive away from the site with a little painted morsel of memory on the floor and a deep sense of satisfaction. These little studies hang around my studio; I look at them to remember how I would always like my paintings to look. These studies are more direct, and less fussy.
I also began to think of Thomas Cole’s landscape series, The Course of Empire. His five painting sequence depicting the rise and fall of Classical Rome. Roman Antiquity and the Italian landscape was Cole’s muse. What is yours?
Yes, Cole’s Classical Rome, after spending just a short ten days in Italy looking at such amazing art and architecture I was, literally, in tears on the plane ride back…our country is young and void of the layers and layers of art and archeology in relationship to the rest of the world. The landscape is practically void of any evidence of Native American existence, and the structures built now are ephemeral.
Also the iconic things that I remember seeing as a child include: water towers, grain elevators, an enormous Jesus figure in Arkansas, and the Jolly Green Giant, located somewhere on route I 35 towards Minneapolis. These things just sort pale in comparison to Bernini sculptures.
My work has grown out of my childhood experience. Iowa is considered part of Tornado Alley, seeing the after effects of tornado damage and watching Wizard of Oz over and over again, certainly has an influence. Additionally, I spent much of my time outdoors creating imagined homes from my fathers scrap parts. Old tractor cabs, grain palettes and random pieces of wood were arranged and/or adapted to provide shelter and backdrops for imagined adventures.
This coupled with the fact that I come from a long line of farmers. Once my grandfather passed away I really started to look at the landscape with such a great appreciation and wonderment. What, if any evidence will be left behind? The earth is such a great provider and how can we take care of it for future generations?
So what are you going to work on next?
I am going to burry the PM [Precious Moments] sculptures, most likely in Iowa and then stage a faux excavation of it. The parts will be reconfigured into maquettes and used for future landscapes.
You may find original post here.