22 September 2010

Melissa Lauren

If you have seen the Arcimboldo exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, you will like Melissa Lauren's latest work. I visited her in her North Potomac studio, where large finished and in-progress oil paintings lean against walls and furniture. Her latest commission is a large bluish-green crab against a sandy background painted meticulously with daubs of white and burnt sienna. After discussing a career as a muralist and illustrator, educated at Parsons, Melissa placed three of her signature pieces next to one another. These unlikely portrait-landscapes are difficult to pin down. They are part of a series called Fantasy Faces and combine elements of landscape, portraiture, animals, fruit and objects framed against an easily identifiable and familiar background. The paintings are suitable for a plethora of contexts, and Face of the Bible is located in the Ratner Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. In this series, Melissa explores the boundary between traditional figurative painting and Surrealist techniques of distortion and uncanny superimposition. The artist describes these works as timeless and eternal - without a need for historical specificity. She is interested in their symbolic value and their potential as narrative devices.

The uncanny narrative in her work is not lost in some of her more traditional realist paintings. Whether she is painting crabs, canoers, children playing golf, window shutters or children watching television, Melissa composes her works with the viewer in mind. She wants her audience to be entertained and also to ask questions. Why is the crab off-center? What are elephants doing on a TV screen? Why do you paint evergreens in the fall? In Sunday Afternoon Football, two children are laying on their stomachs, and their bodies are foreshortened toward a TV screen. Their iridescent skin tones are reminiscent of Norman Rockwell's lanky figures. The painter's scrutinizing eye, with an almost unwholesome predilection for details, is evident in the treatment of the striped rug, the hardwood floor underneath, the neo-classical mantle and the children's feet.

Fall Pines is another of Melissa Lauren's paintings that arrest the gaze and tickle the intellect. Instead of painting golden fall leaves, she sets two rusting ornate garden chairs against a delicately-handled moire of evergreens. As usual, the composition does not center a subject but weaves an unsettling context. Three orange pumpkins figure prominently in the painting, but it is hard not to look beyond them at the pines and the low horizon line. The passage of time or a gust of wind could easily alter this precariously designed moment that is filmic in its off-center deadpan crop. Who designed this stage? Well, I can tell you the artist photographed it herself and then worked from the photograph to complete the painting.

Whether new or old, there is always a story behind Melissa's paintings. Her skill as a former muralist and illustrator, her sense of humor and her quick imagination are all there for our enjoyment. We just have to open our eyes and look and question. Voila!  

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