Simon Zalkind, director of the Singer Gallery at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, often looks to major local artists as a source for significant solo shows. Typically, these include work done over a broad sweep of time, which allows viewers to gain insight into the artist's oeuvre. Examples are Paul Gillis and Bill Stockman.
About two years ago, Zalkind got the idea to do a salute to Myron Melnick, an interesting choice considering that Melnick had been essentially inactive for years, though at one time he exhibited his distinctive work in galleries across the country.
The resulting show, Myron Melnick: Taking Shape: Works With Paper, is drop-dead gorgeous.
Zalkind wanted to feature Melnick because he was afraid the artist's formidable reputation and impressive body of work would be lost from the art world's consciousness — and of course he's right, as out of sight is out of mind. "Myron was always on my to-do list. But I was nervous because I hadn't seen his pieces in years," Zalkind says. "I was basically going on memory — and hoping that my memory had some accuracy. But when the works went up, I was so thrilled at how they looked. They were gorgeous."
When Zalkind's on, as he is with this Melnick show, he's really on, and he can transform the pathologically small and modest Singer space into a convincing imitation of a museum gallery. In fact, I'd say that had the Melnick show been presented at the MCA Denver or RedLine, it would qualify as one of the best individual efforts that either venue had ever mounted. (It's a shame that when Zalkind did do a show at the MCA, it was about a famous — and repulsive — Austrian artist, Hermann Netsch, rather than one of this city's art stars, which would have been so much more edifying.)
But come to think of it, the Singer is actually the perfect venue for this show because of Melnick's own associations with the Jewish Community Center, where the Singer is located, and the surrounding Hilltop neighborhood. Melnick, who was born in Denver in 1953, grew up just blocks away in an ultra-cool mid-century modern house.
"I used to come to the Jewish Community Center all the time," says Melnick. "I lived here, and I went to George Washington High School, where I got involved with ceramics through Mark Zamantakis." Though Melnick's parents hoped he'd become a dentist — "They thought I was good with my hands," says Melnick with a laugh — art, in particular ceramics, increasingly occupied his interest when he was a student at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He worked there with Tom Potter and Jim Lorio.
"In Boulder, I decided I wanted to be an artist; that's what I wanted to do," says Melnick, who did his graduate work at the University of Minnesota, where he worked closely with Warren MacKenzie, a giant in the studio pottery movement. "That, I think, was a really good experience. I was kind of lost before that time, I didn't know how to see, I didn't know how to express myself, but I had a really good foundation."
But it was at this time — he earned his MFA in 1978 — that Melnick began to experiment with paper. "I was making these thin ceramic plates, and they were a little too fragile sometimes, and someone gave me some paper pulp and I made some plates, and they took me a long time to finish. I rubbed some ceramic materials into the paper, and it stuck to the paper, and it was rich, and I was thinking, this is the way to go."
Thus began Melnick's nearly thirty-year career working with paper, either cast into sculptural forms or providing the basis for his monotypes. He stepped back from art almost a decade ago, though, to take over the family business, the Zephyr Lounge on East Colfax in Aurora, which he runs along with an adjacent restaurant and motel.
The Singer show isn't a retrospective; rather, Zalkind made his selections based on aesthetic considerations alone. The oldest pieces are from the late 1980s, and the newest works were done in the early 2000s, though a few were reworked just a year ago. Zalkind chose a large body of monotypes — the largest group ever presented together — along with several of Melnick's signature wall sculptures.
"The monotypes are Myron giving into the urge of making things beautiful, which is a quality that I still find to be attractive," Zalkind says. "And in the case of the sculptures, that the scale could be that heroic and be made of paper — they have tremendous heft and substance and solidity, but they are actually quite light."
The monotypes incorporate collage elements — sheets of waxed paper in some — and were done with artist and printmaker Kate McGuinness. Stylistically, they're neo-modern riffs on early abstraction, and they look astoundingly fresh now. They reveal in their dazzling palettes that Melnick is quite an accomplished colorist and an expert at creating a pleasing array of complementary tones.
In "Satisfaction," from 1989, Melnick has crammed the picture plane with roughly geometric and organic shapes in different colors arranged into various dynamic diagonals running from bottom to top. Though it's over twenty years old, it still looks strikingly new. The same could be said for "Nude With Red Ribbon," from 1995, which is a puzzle of organic forms, none of which seem to refer directly to the subjects mentioned in the title. In some cases, Melnick worked on the same or similar compositions with different palettes. In one series here, a single piece, "Distilled," was done in black and white with translucent waxed paper.
Though I've seen Melnick's monotypes before, I didn't remember them. But looking at them now, I was amazed at how compatible they are with the work of contemporary Colorado abstractionists — in particular, Dale Chisman — and it was easy to imagine how great a duet of the works on paper by these two artists would be.
Though the sculptures have the same kind of neo-modernist approach to forms as the monotype collages do, with clear references to early abstractionists like Brancusi, they also have a tribal quality. Melnick is an art collector, and among his many interests are African art and Oceanic art, which have influenced his work.
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There are several types of wall sculpture in the show. The most ambitious in size were done in the '90s and are made of cast, burnished paper. Several of these, notably the densely composed "Symphonic Composition," made up of vertically oriented shapes in gentle abstract forms, refer to the figure, if only in its guise as a totem. In "Veni, Vidi, Vici," Melnick takes a much simpler formal approach. Employing five shapes — two that are full-bodied and reminiscent of shields, and three that take a thinner, more vertical form — he's covered large areas of the off-white ground with large areas of black that's been applied in bars and stripes like war paint.
Another group of sculptures, these from around 2000, are polychrome neo-cubist clusters of forms done in high relief, like "Metropolis" and "Duke." The colors are dusty yet sumptuous, and the complicated arrangements of the elements, each a different shade, are tightly connected to one another.
The last group of works, created in the mid-2000s but finished in 2010, are stylistically related to the neo-cubist pieces, but they mark a radical change in technique, with Melnick using found paper and boxes instead of making his own from pulp. All resemble ceramic pieces — which the other sculptures really don't — especially the blue-and-white "Reinterpretation." Also striking and from this same period is "Torch," done in a brilliant orange monochrome.
Myron Melnick is a stunning show, and though it's been several years since Melnick's was a household name in the art world, his work, as Zalkind believed, is still relevant.