Since the 1970s, Mel Chin (born 1951, Houston) has influenced a generation of artists and curators interested in conceptual art and political awareness. His oeuvre encompasses a wide variety of media including sculpture, video, drawing, painting, land art, and performance art. Eschewing a trademark style, the common thread through Chin’s practice is his conceptual rigor, thoughtful historicism, and concern for social justice. He challenges traditional definitions of ownership and authorship by creating artworks that are often site-specific and collaborative, involving many artists and community members. He has taught and lectured widely, often including his students in large-scale projects that span years. His land-based works such as Revival Field from the early 1990s and Operation Paydirt (Fundred) (2008-ongoing), garnered significant international press for presenting the science of soil remediation as an art form. On a parallel track to his site-specific work, Chin has produced an independent body of sculpture and drawing steeped in the legacy of Dada and Surrealism, particularly the strains of chance, eroticism, and societal critique. Although Chin has had solo exhibitions at museums including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1989), the Walker Art Center (1990), The Menil Collection (1991) and the Station Museum, Houston (2006), this will be the first exhibition to incorporate and contextualize the major projects and installations from all decades of his career.
The retrospective Mel Chin: Rematch (the title of which refers to the artist’s own continual process of self re-evaluation) is designed to reflect Chin’s artistic methodology and conceptual approach, stressing the collaborative and viral nature of many of his endeavors. The exhibition will include approximately 70 works, including drawings, paintings, sculptures, major installations, video, and documentation of collective interventions and public works. Challenging the traditional concept of a retrospective as a chronological presentation of a single individual’s work over time, this exhibition will celebrate Chin’s practice of constant mutation, evolution, and re-examination. In his artwork, themes such as violence, soil, alchemy, memory, and empathy resurface over the course of many years. In each iteration, however, they are reconfigured into a new context, making Chin’s trajectory have more in common with the interconnectivity of a spider web than a straightforward path. In his Notes on Method from 1995, Chin explains:
If I were to describe my method over the years, I would declare it to be an evolution of a multidimensional system. It is contrary to a recognizable style with its own progressive development which can be traced on a flat text book tree. I have leapt from conceptual limb to limb and such a system is not easily revealed through chronology.
The objects and project artifacts in the exhibition will be organized around thematic strands that highlight Chin’s broad range of subject matter, materials, and formal approaches. The exhibition will bring together for the first time major installations including Operation of the Sun through the Cult of the Hand, 1987, Landscape, 1990 and Degrees of Paradise, 1992. The exhibition will also include specimens and documentation of Chin’s major land-based projects from early works such as The Earthworks: See/Saw, 1984 to later ecological, socio-conceptual sculptures like Revival Field. His most recent venture Operation Paydirt (Fundred), born in 2008 out of his research in New Orleans, is an interdisciplinary project that has generated thousands of schoolchildren’s drawings in an effort to garner funding towards the development of an effective city-wide method for the remediation of lead contaminated soil. The impact of this recent project has lead to Chin’s successful collaboration beginning in 2010 with the Environmental Protection Agency in testing new lead remediation methods in Oakland, CA, and a major grant in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for scientists to test soil remediation methods in New Orleans.
The exhibition aims to highlight the elegance and beauty inherent in Chin’s land and studio practice, while also including seminal examples of Chin’s viral insertions into the realm of popular culture and politics.
For example, In the Name of the Place: GALA Committee, 1995-1997, Chin collaborated (with 120 other artists) for two years with the television series “Melrose Place,” inserting socially-engaged content into the show’s sets and props. Public sculptures also constitute a large portion of the artist’s production, hence the exhibition will include artifacts and documents from projects such as Recolecciones: San Jose Library Project, 1999–2007 and Seven Wonders: Houston Sesquicentennial Park Monument, 1996-1998.
The goal of Mel Chin: Rematch is to familiarize the public with an artist who is internationally known for creating poetic and conceptually dense works that defy easy categorization. The show will provide for the first time a thorough overview of Chin’s operating practices, his insatiable thirst for research, his interest in the multitudinous connotations of physical materials, and ultimately, his faith in the power of art to act as a catalytic structure for thought and communication.
Mel Chin: Rematch is organized by Miranda Lash, the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the New Orleans Museum of Art. This exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, which includes essays by Miranda Lash, Eleanor Heartney, critic for Art in America, Patricia C. Phillips, Associate Provost, at the Rhode Island School of Design, Patricia Covo Johnson, former critic for the Houston Chronicle, and poet Andrei Codrescu, among others. The catalogue will also include an extensive illustrated chronology of Chin’s career (the first to-date) by Lisa Crossman, PhD.
Ecology of the Gala Committee
Collection of Wilhelm Schurmann, Germany
Courtesy of the artist
Collection of Irvin A. Levy