Saul Melman: Post-Modern Alchemy

Written by Deianira Tolema and Marley C. Smit

Brooklyn based artist Saul Melman experiments with materials like ice, salt, sunlight, skin dust, and gold leaf, revealing the ephemeral state of matter through artistic alchemy. Melman’s sculptures, installations, and works on paper hold the viewer’s attention at the threshold between inside and outside, material and immaterial, ordinary and sublime. Melman is represented by Galleria Anna Marra in Rome, Italy. His work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, and art fairs in Europe and the United States including Mumok, Socrates Sculpture Park, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, and, most recently, the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park.

Saul Melman. Anthropocene Series_05 and Anthropocene Series_03, 2019. Ice, Carbon, and Abaca, 19” x 25”, Courtesy of the Artist

In the studio, Melman subjects materials to experimental processes in order to “capture the magnitude, energy, and intensity that causes transformation.”[2] His use of evanescent materials like ice and sunlight reflect his interest in recording charged transitional moments, frozen in time. Through his experimental engagement with materials, Melman strives for his “sculptures to feel alive, to imbue them with their own independent energy.”[8]

Saul Melman (left) with friend and artist John Ahearn (right), 2018. Photograph Ani Weinstein, Courtesy of the Artist

 Melman’s first large-scale sculpture installation, Johnny On The Spot, exhibited in the Black Rock Desert in 2003, was an architectural iteration of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). Constructed of Tyvek and wood, the giant urinal-turned-temple received thousands of visitors into its inner sanctuary during the Burning Man festival before it was set ablaze at the festival’s end. In this explosive effigy, Melman both questioned and paid homage to Duchamp’s iconic work of 20th century art.

Saul Melman. Johnny On The Spot, 2003. Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Courtesy of the Artist

Saul Melman. Johnny On The Spot, 2003. Black Rock Desert, Nevada. Photograph by Mark Reade, Courtesy of the Artist

 As part of the 2010 Greater New York exhibition at MoMA PS1, Melman transformed the museum’s dark, unwelcoming boiler room into an alluring space of contemplation. During a six-month-long performance, he chiseled 5,000 pounds of salt block and gilded the massive, decommissioned furnace, placing one piece of golf leaf at a time, using his own handmade tools and sweat. He cleaned the sidewalk level windows to allow beams of sunlight to penetrate the subterranean space, creating a sense of vibrancy and rebirth as the sunlight traced its path across the textured golden surface of the furnace. Through his careful attention to the discarded industrial relic, he reified the abject readymade into a sublimely majestic alter of reverence. This installation, entitled Central Governor (2010), remains on view at MoMA PS1 as a long-term installation.

Saul Melman. Central Governor (performance still), 2010. Long-Term installation at MoMA PS1 Queens, NY, Courtesy of the Artist

Saul Melman. Central Governor, 2010. Long-Term installation at MoMA PS1 Queens, NY. Photograph by Tim Hyde, Courtesy of the Artist

Saul Melman. Central Governor, 2010. Long-Term installation at MoMA PS1 Queens, NY. Courtesy of the Artist

The artist’s current exhibition, Best of All Possible Worlds (2018), at the deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Massachusetts, also uses sunlight as a primary material with which to explore themes of transformation. The sculpture is comprised of eight vacuum formed casts of salvaged doors arranged in the architecture of a domestic space. “The vacuum-cast process creates translucent replicas of the original doors in plastic. Traces of paint and pieces of wood cling to the surface of some of the doors, suggesting their past lives and situating them between the material and immaterial, past and present.”[4] The artist chooses old doors that are marked with the history of domestic use, extending the intimacy of the sculpture’s narrative. In so doing, the work transcends the cold detachment of minimalist artists like Donald Judd, and extends a warm invitation to viewers. As the semi-translucent casts catch the sun’s rays they transmute into glowing thresholds. The casts are entrances and exits. Portals to a future not yet realized, like the doors that greet Alice after she tumbles down the rabbit hole, or perhaps the threshold that Svetlana Boym regarded in The Future of Nostalgia as “…Not merely an expression of local longing but a result of a new understanding of time and space…” [9] Although doors are primarily an architectural mechanism, through Melman’s artistic alchemy, Best Of All Possible Worlds is an ephemeral experience, where light, space, and time curve and refract.

Saul Melman. Best Of All Possible Worlds, 2018. DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Courtesy of the Artist

 This work formally references post-minimalist artists like Rachel Whiteread, and fore-bearers like Joseph Beuys, whose work featured materials that, “resemble(d) the ritual debris of a primitive culture: (like) a block of fat…”[5] It is also reminiscent of Paul Thek, who “made a point of working with ephemeral materials like newspaper, wax, unfired clay, and vegetation.”[6] Both Beuys and Thek made work that evoked—through an almost shamanistic practice—the body eternal as a pathway to the sublime. Through this integration of the post-minimalist formalism of artists like Whiteread, and the primitive archaic works of Beuys and Thek, Melman is part of a larger contemporary narrative that evokes the pre-modern and ritualistic.

Saul Melman. Best Of All Possible Worlds, 2018. (Detail) DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Courtesy of the Artist

 The doors were originally inspired by a photo-collage of Melman’s, also entitled Best Of All Possible Worlds (2009)[10]. The image is of a hospital trauma room saturated in Baker Miller Pink, a hue claimed to have a psychologically calming effect. The 2009 photo-collage and the 2018 installation of the same name both represent transitional environments and liminal states of being. In addition to being a working artist, Melman is an emergency room doctor, with direct experience in the transitional spaces between life and death. As an ER physician, Melman viscerally understands how time can accelerate or slow down during catastrophic, life changing events that often leave marks on those who endure.  Similarly, his sculptures intentionally reveal the processes by which they were created, indexes of their transformational passage through time.

 

In her 1970 book Meaning and Expression: Toward a Sociology of Art, Hanna Deinhard poses the question, “How is it possible that works of art, which always originate as products of human activity within a particular time and society and for a particular time, society, or function…can live beyond their time and seem expressive and meaningful in completely different epochs and societies? On the other hand, how can the age and society that produced them be recognized in the works?”[11] Melman’s work responds to these questions. His homage to Duchamp displays an appreciation and self-awareness of his place within the sprawling timeline of art history. His alchemical rejuvenation of the derelict boiler serves as a testament to the artist’s reverence for the way time can imbue discarded objects with dignity and beauty. Melman’s semi-translucent cast doors engage the viewer in an elusive experience of time and space that is at once hauntingly personal and universally relatable. In all his works, Melman creates a non-linear sensibility of time, the circular passageways between life, death, and rebirth, “a space in which time is irregular, fluid and supernatural.”[12]

Saul Melman. Best Of All Possible Worlds, 2018. DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, MA. Photograph by Clements Photography and Design, Courtesy of the Artist

[1]The Eternal ‘Fountain’: See 12 Modern-Day Artists Make Brilliant Use of Duchamp’s Toilet; Art Net News,  news.artnet.com/art-world/duch amp-slideshow-922667

[2] Saul Melman Artist statement & CV; remahortmann.org/project/saul- melman/; Remahortman Foundation, New York, NY

[3] Saul Melman Artist statement & CV; remahortmann.org/project/saul- melman/; Remahortman Foundation, New York, NY

[4] decordova.org/art/exhibition/p latform-21-saul-melman-best-al l-possible-worlds, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum

[5] Lange, Olivia; The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/30/fat-felt-fall-earth-making-and-myths-joseph-beuys

[6] Thackara, Tess; Artsy.net, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-shamanic-practices-making-comeback-contemporary-art

[7] Heller, Maxwell; The Brooklyn Rail, https://brooklynrail.org/2010/12/artseen/paul-thek-diver

[8] Beer, Jonathan; Olive, Lily Koto. art-rated.com/?p=873,

[9]  Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books. 2001

[10] Melman, Saul;Best of All Possible Worlds: A Visual Tour. believermag.com/post/2013/11/1 4/best-of-all-possible-worlds- a-visual-tour. The Believer Logger.

[11] Deinhard, Hanna (1970). Meaning and Expression: Toward a Sociology of Art. Boston: Beacon Press. p. 3.

[12] Saul Melman Artist statement & CV; remahortmann.org/project/saul- melman/; Remahortman Foundation, New York, NY

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