Melanie Willhide: The Disquieting Muses Again @Elizabeth Houston

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space upstairs and the smaller room downstairs. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 2015 and 2017. Physical sizes range from 12×14 to 27×37 inches (or reverse) and all of the prints are available in editions of 5+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Artists have long been fascinated by the improvisational honesty of scrawled graffiti and spray painted messages. Alley bricks, bathroom stalls, highway underpasses, locker room walls, and other transitionally private spaces have provided ready surfaces for anonymous expressions and urges, the cartoons and diatribes found there often mixing anger, desire, politics, and humor in potently direct ways. And photographers have been quick to see the power in leveraging the placement of these in situ artworks, from isolating discovered gems that speak to cultural realities to highlighting the juxtapositional irony of an impromptu scrawl in an inopportune location.

Melanie Willhide’s new photographs continue in this tradition, with a twist of deliberate visual distortion. Her jittering pictures start with the wooden beams of her uncle’s art studio, each one a dense aggregation of magazine cutouts, newspaper clippings, and hand-drawn scribblings accumulated over decades of use. The building began its life as a silk ribbon factory, and later housed an auto parts distribution center and a furniture warehouse, so the interior surfaces are layered like geological sediments, the jottings and remnants of various workers creating a jumbled history of imagery up and down each collaged post.

Willhide carefully scanned these surfaces, and the resulting artworks introduce squiggled areas of repetition, elongation, and stuttering disruption into the already busy mix. In her 2012 show, entitled To Adrian Rodriguez, with love, these kinds of glitches were ostensibly accidental or randomly introduced; here, the compressing and slicing of images is more deliberate, the packed surfaces becoming the visual raw material for iterative reworking and distortion, with the scanner introducing its own particular menu of warps and smears.

Since many of the image fragments on the beams came from Playboy and other magazines and the workers in these places were largely men, many of Willhide’s compositions revolve around the depiction of women. In “Girls are for Loving”, a cartoon of a curvy woman with extra large lips is intermingled with the thin frame of Twiggy, creating an exaggerated back and forth rhythm. In “Brains Needed”, a cartoon nude is leered at by multiple eyes, the images bending and repeating with increasing insistence. And “Kiss and Clobber the Viet Cong” takes the isolation idea a step further, making images of mouths and lips into an all-over array of draped and folded seduction. Other compositions bring in shards of cultural history (Frankenstein, Nixon, Jack the Ripper, Lincoln, American flags) and combine them with beauties in sequinned dresses, bathing suits, and nylon stockings, the mood tinged with an element of juvenile drawn-in-pubic-hair crudeness.

But instead of letting these relics of bygone ages and attitudes linger in the shadows, Willhide has thoughtfully appropriated and reinterpreted them. Her scanner manipulations twist the imagery into complex new relationships and forms, creating mash-ups that feel wholly modern. Her works upend the dated masculine stereotypes and expose their fragile ridiculousness, asserting her own artistic power and agency over the saucy encrustations of generations of men.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $2250 and $5200 based on size. Willhide’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Melanie Willhide, Elizabeth Houston Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    The use of a scanner rather than a camera, and appropriating a patina of ephemera, is intriguing. As an alternative to the Dusseldorfians there will always be a need for accident-prone glitch photography.

    The Boris Karloff/Woman in swimsuit picture is super nice.

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