Robert Melee, a dozen Roses @Higher Pictures

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 black and white and color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against light grey walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are pigment prints, made between 1993 and 2004. Each print is sized roughly 17×24 (or reverse), and is available in an edition of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Robert Melee’s staged portraits of his mother boldly probe that elusive place in photography where the outrageous crosses into the uncomfortable. What are we to make of the artist’s senior citizen mother (named Rose, thus the exhibit title) standing stark naked in the snow, wearing nothing but fright makeup and an oversized wig? Are we expected to find the scene deeply creepy or crazily fabulous? All of the pictures on view walk this perilous knife edge, repeatedly throwing us off balance but keeping us voyeuristically intrigued by what might happen next.

Like Leigh Ledare’s erotic images of his mother, Melee’s photographs destroy the normal boundaries of the mother/son relationship. After a few too many drinks, the performative fun begins, with mom putting on exaggerated combinations of white pancake makeup, dark eyeliner/lipstick, and ill-fitting wigs, creating a grotesque mashup personality of drag queen, goth clown, and Captain Jack Sparrow. With flamboyant devil-may-care panache, she poses in a variety of mundane at home settings, from drinking a beer in the tub to bent over on all fours on the kitchen table wearing sheer lingerie and decorated with pots and pans. She swills wine in a louche breast exposing jumpsuit, topples over drunkenly while trying to sit on a party balloon, and falls into the pool wearing a red dress. Each image is like a scene from a bizarre black comedy, a purposefully unflattering, almost degrading caricature, designed to be unsettlingly absurd.

And yet, there is something undeniably wonderful about Rose in her oddball makeup, cackling hysterically in the passenger seat of a convertible as she passes the endless rows of gravestones in a cemetery – it’s disturbing, psychologically charged, and irreverently edge-of-crazy audacious. But what’s subtly surprising about this picture, and many of the others, is that it also has a layer of authentic affection that simmers underneath the obvious dark exaggeration. Mother and son are knowingly taking these risks together, and the memorable results jangle with that intimate tension.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $5000 each. Melee’s photographs have little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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