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Sprawling Conversation

Sprawling Conversation

Mel Chin, The Funk & Wag from A to Z (installation view), 2012. Excised printed pages from The Universal Standard Encyclopedia, 1953–56, by Wilfred Funk, Inc., archival water-based glue, paper, 524 collages. Courtesy of the artist.

Mel Chin Returns to Houston

Mel Chin, Drawn Currency Series: Apoptosis, 2006. Ink on U.S. currency (1) dollar denomination 2 5/8 x 6 1/8 inches Collection of Jeffrey Beauchamp and the late Toni Beauchamp
Mel Chin, Drawn Currency Series: Apoptosis, 2006.
Ink on U.S. currency (1) dollar denomination.
2 5/8 x 6 1/8 inches
Collection of Jeffrey Beauchamp and the late Toni Beauchamp.

In a phone call from his studio in North Carolina, Mel Chin recounted his first return to Houston. Having spent years away, and finding himself in Tennessee, he threw a stick in the air, deciding it would determine his next destination. “ ‘Don’t point home,’ I thought. I jinxed it,” Chin remembered. Since then, Chin has returned numerous times, for exhibitions, talks, family gatherings, but his next return will undoubtedly be the most grandiose:  A collaboration between the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Station Museum of Contemporary Art and Asia Society Texas Center.   Rematch, which opens Jan. 17 and runs through Mar. 21 at the Blaffer and April 19 at CAMH and Asia Society Texas Center, will act as a retrospective of sorts, showcasing the artist’s wide breadth of work and research.  Beyond this exhibition, Chin is in talks with other Houston organizations for further exhibitions of his older drawings and sculptures.

As his work sprawls over Houston, visitors to these many spaces have an amazing chance for exposure to work by a man who has inspired a generation of artists and curators alike. In a similar fashion, a conversation with Chin sprawls over a wide range of topics, as words flow seamlessly through ideas and explanations.

A Plethora of Ideas and Practices

As any visitor to Rematch will notice, Chin covers a vast spectrum of artistic practices and concepts. The artist notes, however, that his process is really rooted in concepts. “There’s an evolutionary process put into action,” he explained. Key moments in his history have forced certain practices into extinction without leaving much hint as to what would follow. Chin cites the Revival Field project as an example of this.

Begun in 1991 and continuing today, Revival Field is located at Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, MN. In its infancy, this land art experiment replicated a field test using plants that extract heavy metals from contaminated soil. Analysis of samples from the area proved the potential of “green remediation” as a method for curing contaminated land.

To start this project, Chin followed an internal voice. It questioned what he “loved doing” as an artist and led him to completely shut down his practice until he was able to comprehend a new approach.

The Poetry of a Concept

Mel Chin is widely touted as one of the preeminent conceptual artists in practice. “These days I come upon situations where I feel not so much inspired but compelled to act,” Chin said when asked about what inspires a project. When talking about his process, Chin expressed his belief that the poetry of a concept is what gives him direction. In truth, Chin’s process turns out to be very rational and simple for one whose oeuvre encompasses sculpture, video, drawing, painting, land art, and performance art.

It starts with a thought, and in Chin’s mind, it never ends. In determining what ideas to follow, pragmatism becomes necessary. He incorporates healthy doses of critical thinking and a mental scientific method several times throughout the process of a piece to see whether it is worth surviving. Then, Chin pursues it by any means, medium, method, or materials necessary. “The medium becomes secondary to the need to realize the thought,” he stated.

As a companion in this quest for a concept that is equal parts poetic and survivalist, Chin noted that it takes “research to destroy preconceived notions.” While there is an evolutionary process at work, and the concepts also evolve, there must always remain the original germ. For Chin, that germ is the only way to ensure the continuation of the concept’s liberating poetry, even when the by-any-means course to fruition becomes an enslaving ordeal. “The artist may never be completely free, but the thought form deserves a chance.”

Mel Chin, Screenshots from the video game KNOWMAD, 1999. Interactive video installation, vintage rugs, fabric tent, projector, Windows computer 106 x 230 x 150 in. (tent). Courtesy of the artist
Mel Chin, Screenshots from the video game KNOWMAD, 1999.
Interactive video installation, vintage rugs, fabric tent, projector, Windows computer 106 x 230 x 150 in. (tent).
Courtesy of the artist

An At-Times Activist

“I might say I resemble that remark sometimes,” is how Chin responds when asked how he feels about being labeled an activist artist. While many of Chin’s pieces are considered to be examples of art-as-activism, the artist doesn’t always see it that way. For Chin, social activism may be an aspect of certain projects, but it isn’t always key. He prefers to think of it as contributing to a conversation over a point of activism.

Early on in his Courier-Post article “Mel Chin: Art as Activism at Rowan,” John Scanlon paints a picture of the artist as a pessimist who only sees the bad in the world.

“For four decades, he has refined his portrait as a conceptual artist, but Chin was anointed long ago with a special moniker—‘activist artist’— because of his preoccupation with social injustice, war, capitalism, environmental destruction and murderous governments, to name just a few downbeat topics.”

Scanlon goes on to describe the vast difference between Chin’s work and that of artists such as Jeff Koons, although the work of these two artists bears no resemblance and the comparison overlooks the beauty of Chin’s work as a lamentation. It is true that he focuses much of his work on issues of politics and geographical concerns, but the artist’s methodology often results in aesthetics that are as likely to be breathtaking as they are to leave you deep in thought.

Art As Icebreaker, Not Statement

Perhaps the greatest example of Chin’s work being equally thought-provoking and breathtaking is his latest installation. The artist was commissioned by North Carolina’s Mint Museum to create a piece that would commemorate the Panama Canal’s 100th anniversary. While it would have been easier to paint a picture that touts the structure as an engineering marvel that linked two oceans, he chose to explore the ways in which this connection has changed their composition.

“Some topics, like the necessity to comprehend something as vast as climate change and the future of the oceans, require a format where the explication of the dilemmas is not complete in a static object or even in one film,” Chin reflected. The result is Sea to See, two massive structures that act as oceanic portraits brought to life by animated data that Chin and his scientist cohorts have composited into flowing layers.

In conversation, Chin spoke of art as a means to start conversations over a final statement. Impact is hard to measure, but he believes that the creation of a powerful presence is a good place to start. “Artwork is not the end. It can be the beginning,” Chin said. It’s difficult to say how art impacts viewers, but there’s no doubt that it can leave a lasting mark.

“I was told that a kid was in the Mint Museum the other day, lying on the floor between the two projection orbs, viewing the Atlantic and Pacific digital data flow, and when his parent asked when he would like to leave, he responded, ‘Never.’ ”

For a complete list of events, exhibitions and more associated with Mel Chin: Rematch, visit the retrospective’s official website at RematchHouston.com

—MICHAEL MCFADDEN