By Dorothy Spears | The New York Times
ELIMINATING lead poisoning from the lives of children is not a typical goal of art. But for Mel Chin, the borders of art have long extended past the crafting of discrete objects.
“I like this idea of unexpected relationships,” said Mr. Chin, 62, who, with the greater good in mind, has spent 40 years obliterating boundaries between science, education, politics and, perhaps most pointedly, people.
To Mr. Chin, art is not essentially visual nor about the selling of an idea. “It’s about delivering a reality that affects the future of individuals,” he said in a recent interview.
During his long and prolific career, he has had solo shows at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Menil Collection in Houston. He has received prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. He has lectured far and wide and rubbed elbows with the renowned French philosopher and theorist Jacques Derrida.
Still, as an artist Mr. Chin operates largely outside the glitz of the art market, partly because he stresses concepts over salable paintings and sculptures and partly because, aesthetically speaking, he lacks an identifiable signature. Mr. Chin, the child of Chinese immigrants, is so versatile that his friends like to joke about the fact that he was even included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1994 exhibition, “Black Male.”
“Mel Chin: Rematch,” a retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art through May 25, traces the career of this shape-shifting artist, who often compares himself to a virus, always adapting to survive.
The exhibition ranges widely, from his work calling attention to lead contamination in soil and houses in New Orleans to a 1990s project in which Mr. Chin and colleagues swapped props for subversive artworks on the set of the popular television show “Melrose Place.” A giant screen mesh recreates the facade of Connecticut’s oldest free African-American church. Also shown are pieces that reflect Mr. Chin’s concerns about nature and ecology.
“Once you realize that mutability is one of Mel’s goals, it becomes easier to wrap your mind around the many twists and turns of his oeuvre,” said Miranda Lash, curator of modern and contemporary art at the New Orleans Museum and the exhibition’s organizer.
James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, which in 2006 offered a survey of Mr. Chin’s political work, agreed. “Mel Chin is really complex, and he’s kind of made his own way,” he said. “In terms of precedents, I think you can make a case for Duchamp and Dada. But it’s very difficult to go further than that.”
A Houston native, Mr. Chin grew up in the tough, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood of Kashmere Gardens, where his parents ran a corner grocery. He was copying comics by age 3 and Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Battle of Anghiari” some years later, he said, adding that as a boy he pored over postage-stamp-size reproductions of paintings by Albert Pinkham Ryder in his family’s World Book encyclopedia and paid frequent visits to the city’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Yet it was the diverse environment of his family’s grocery store that molded Mr. Chin’s artistic worldview. “Having this very lively African-American culture that we were in the thick of inspired me,” he said, as did the array of nontraditional art materials at his disposal. “There was a butcher shop in the store, so there was a lot of paper to draw on,” he said, adding that since he “wasn’t that good at the money,” he was summarily dispatched to a meat grinder, where he began producing sculptures out of hamburger meat.
If unexpected relationships have galvanized Mr. Chin over the years, so has the discovery of potential artworks hiding in plain sight. In the Saint Roch neighborhood of New Orleans, for example, where his most ambitious work, “Operation Paydirt,” was first conceived, what was hiding in plain sight was lead.
Mr. Chin said he had frequented New Orleans growing up, and when he visited after Hurricane Katrina, “I was really moved by talking to people and seeing what their lives had become.” As an artist and an outsider, however, he worried that any assistance he could offer would be inadequate. “I was completely overwhelmed,” he said.
He began reading about excessive lead lingering in the environment, from the paint of old houses and other products, and started meeting scientists like Dr. Howard Mielke, who showed him maps of the soil in impoverished areas. “He basically said that 30 to 50 percent of the inner-city childhood population of New Orleans was blood-poisoned with lead,” said Mr. Chin. “I started looking at all of those kids, and I realized it wasn’t about me doing a damn thing. It was about we doing something.”
Mr. Chin located an evacuated house in Saint Roch where three children had acquired lead poisoning, and he began sealing the interior with special paint. The final touch was a vault door creating the appearance of a giant safe. Watching Mr. Chin transform an abandoned building into a place suitable for humans, the neighbors became curious.
“In New Orleans, whenever artists come in from the outside and want to do anything, particularly things based in the community, people are glad, but there’s also a suspicion,” said Ms. Lash, adding, “The phrase carpetbagger comes up.”
To assess the enthusiasm of those he was hoping to help, Mr. Chin gave a street party and invited only people from the Saint Roch area. It was a success, according to a resident, Carol Atlow. “When I say everybody enjoyed themselves,” she said, “we enjoyed ourselves, respecting Mr. Mel to the highest.”
Mr. Chin called the work “Safehouse,” and it served as a headquarters in the early years of his overarching, nationwide project, “Operation Paydirt,” whose goal is the elimination of childhood lead poisoning. At community meetings, Ms. Atlow said, “Mr. Mel hung a map on the wall that explained everything from A to Z about how high the lead poisoning was in this community, and how high it was in other communities, and what it meant for people.” Scientists came to present their ideas for treating contaminated soil.
Over time, Mr. Chin’s project was embraced by a national campaign against lead poisoning. In the face of reports about the prevalence of violence in neighborhoods contaminated with lead, and research connecting lead poisoning to unpredictable behavior, Mr. Chin’s team has driven an armored truck run on cafeteria cooking oil to schools from Seattle to Detroit to Boston to pick up drawings of $100 bills by local schoolchildren who support his cause. The campaign has taken on a performance aspect, with guards dressed like bank security officers, holding shovels instead of guns, visiting schools to collect the hand-drawn currency. The idea is that these artworks will eventually “be exchanged for the real capital to do what must be done,” Mr. Chin said.
As with so many of his projects, “Operation Paydirt” requires the cooperation of multiple institutions from a variety of fields. “Part of the artwork was in coordinating all of these different parties, in getting the scientists, the art administrators and the civic people on board toward a common goal,” said Ms. Lash, adding, “These aren’t people who usually talk to each other.”
To date, Mr. Chin and his team have collected over 444,000 drawings of $100 notes, each of them representing the voice of a single advocate. Counted, cataloged, weighed, stacked and bundled, the bills will be displayed at his retrospective in New Orleans. So will the original vault door for “Safehouse,” which has since been torn down.
Lead may easily escape notice but, if Mr. Chin has anything to do it, the nation’s children will not. “More important than just the number of bills is making sure that every kid who drew one knew about the threat of lead poisoning, or what they could do for their own health,” said Mr. Chin, adding, “Forget Mel. The kids have to be talking about it. And the kids are talking now. And the grandmothers.”
A version of this article appears in print on March 20, 2014, on page F42 of the New York edition with the headline: Exhibition Traces a Career Dedicated to Mutability.