Nina Meledandri ‘s images mostly come in multiples. With sensibility that is both poetic and analytical, she creates series of photographs, paintings, and frequently a combination of both. Altogether her body of work forms a vibrant and imaginative internal dialogue. She shares with Art Spiel some of her thought process, what prompts her imagination, and what has brought her to art.
AS: You write: “I make a lot of pictures,
Some of them are paintings,
Some of them are photographs,
in a strange way,
Can you tell me more about that?
Nina Meledandri: After studying photography and then freelancing for almost 10 years, I hit a block and stopped taking pictures. I taught myself to paint, creating a studio practice that included oil, pastel, watercolor and encaustic. Then, about 15 years ago, concurrently with making paintings, I began shooting again and fell down the rabbit hole of the burgeoning photoblogging scene. No matter which medium I was using, the disciplines and the structures I set for myself were the same: a commitment to daily practice, an unquestioning adherence to what I call t_l_v (that little voice) and striving to meet a benchmark of “truth”.
In 2003, pre IG, (and even before flickr) there were endless small platforms where one could share images (fotolog, fotola, photothing, photoblog, lomo).) These became extremely supportive communities for visual artists of all stripes and for many years, I participated by posting both paintings and photographs. Initially these two expressions existed separately, side by side., Over time however, it became increasingly clear to me that the language I had established was not media specific. My reliance on the emotive capabilities of color, the defining properties of line, and the power of juxtaposition to communicate, was not specific to a particular medium. I also had a growing awareness that my photographs and my paintings could be mined as raw material for new work containing both together.
AS: This seems to tie into your notion of “In Between”, which you emphasize in your texts. Can you elaborate on that?
Nina Meledandri: The first project to emerge while observing this symbiosis was “Somewhere in Between.” These works are diptychs that pair a photographic image and a painting. As is the case with sequential work, their power comes not only from each individual image but from the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. I believe this phenomenon resides in the haunting, tiny, almost subliminal space that exists “in between” its individual components. The title also creates a way to describe these works – neither a photograph or a painting – which are in reality somewhere in between. They are realized through one of two processes: the first being a digital print (18 x 42”) that is composed of a photograph of an existing painting paired digitally with a photograph from my archive. Other times I will present, side by side, a painting and a photograph, each on a cradled wood panel. This body of work evolves equally from my years as a photographer when I often worked sequentially and from my painting practice where I have a number of projects, both in oil and watercolor, that rely on paired images.
AS: Tell me a bit about your background – what brought you to art?
Nina Meledandri: I grew up in a creative household. My mother collaged, made us elaborate halloween costumes, and as I was finishing high school, got her BA in creative writing and became a poet. My father, who had gone to the High School of Art & Design, was a renowned clothing designer. Their friends were painters, sculptures, photographers, film makers, creative directors, and art dealers. I remember painting with both my parents, understanding that making things was something one did, like reading, in one’s leisure time. Art just was. I didn’t have a sense that one became an artist, one simply pursued that aspect of themselves.
While my parents were committed to my having a rigorous academic education, I don’t think either of them considered academia as a pathway to becoming an artist. In fact, my father was confounded that I was studying photography in school, every photographer he knew was self taught. Though I entered college pursuing a pre-med curriculum, I soon had declared a fine arts major. Towards the end of my freshman year, I became ill and was forced to cut back on my course load, my commitment was to my art classes, it was my pre-med requirements that got ditched. The writing was on the wall as to what my path would be.
AS: What can you share about the evolution of your photography practice.
Nina Meledandri: My introduction to photography began early in high school with taking extra curricular photo classes, shooting for the yearbook, and being fortunate in having a home darkroom. Where I Initially went to college there were no photography classes offered so I continued to dabble on my own. On transferring to Hampshire College I was able to pursue a Film/Photo concentration. This is when I actually “became” a photographer and began to understand how a creative pursuit could be a vehicle to both develop personal vision and to form a relationship with the cultural history of ones civilization. Now, the medium opened up for me. I explored everything from the conceptual to documentary, from formal portraiture to collage, from 1/2 frame to medium format to polaroid, all of which set the stage for my somewhat eclectic approach to image making.
On graduating, I returned to New York and assisted the photographer Evelyn Hofer; represented by Witkin Gallery, she was renowned for her searing portraits as well as her architectural compositions. Hofer photographed exclusively with a 4×5 camera, had impeccable darkroom skills and an incredibly discerning eye. The education I received from her was as rigorous as it was invaluable both in developing vision (she taught me to be relentless in pursuit of the essence of whatever was in front of my lens) and by providing a practical education in navigating the real world of editors and art directors. My B&W darkroom technique also got a boost printing for her but Hofer’s color work, shot for publication, was on transparency film. My generation was more drawn to color negative, which we could process and print ourselves. I had a color darkroom for many years which gave me the freedom to work without relying on an outside lab. This was a critical step in gaining the same degree of fluency in color as I had with B&W; I was able to evaluate and respond to what and how I was seeing in an immediate way. One takes this for granted in the digital era, but having a prolonged lag time between shooting and seeing, the results could stagnate ones process and progress.
Interestingly, when I first interviewed with Hofer, she told me she had periods in her life when she would stop photographing and just paint. At the time I knew she questioned if I would be strong enough to manage her heavy and cumbersome equipment (I am sure it didn’t help that I had been in a cast for 3 months and was still limping). I thought she was preparing me for being let go if I couldn’t cut it. What I could not see was how her story would foretell my own.
After struggling with my first major creative block I put down the camera for 10+ years and picked up a paint brush. When I did resume shooting, it was with digital and I was no longer driven to adhere to the strict technical guidelines that had previously dominated my relationship to the medium. I was no longer looking for “that perfect image”, I approached shooting as if I was gathering frames for a story, collecting visual reference points and examining my gut responses to the world around me.
AS: Let’s take a closer look at your series “Random Thoughts”, which began in 2005. What is the genesis and process?
Nina Meledandri: I had arrived at a point in my painting practice where I needed a way of working that would give me more freedom to experiment, I was making predominantly large work but the investment in these canvases (both in dollars and time) could be intimidating as well as lend a “preciousness” to the process. I wanted use oil with the same degree of spontaneity that I experienced in my daily watercolor practice. Looking for a solution, I came across (the now ubiquitous) cradled wood panel and began making 8×8” oil paintings with abandon. I would start 10, and then another 10 and then another 10. I would paint over or scrape off anything that struck me as “untrue”, I wasn’t analyzing, I was responding. Some were finished in a day or two, others, it would turn out, took years. As the project grew, I found that these paintings lent themselves to being displayed in groups and I began to think of them as a visual version of magnetic poetry, where the viewer could make their own configurations using as many or as few paintings as they wanted. I printed images of the “Random Thoughts” on to 1.75×1.75” magnets and developed “The Random Thoughts Game”, distributing them to artists and friends in packs of 10. I asked in return that each recipient send me photos of the configurations that they made with them. These I posted on a blog with a little blurb about the person, our relationship and if they had one, a link to their site. This was a continuation of a snail mail project I had begun years before called “Art Pals” and it was the second in a series of virtual projects that I have developed to connect artists with each other.
Over the years, the “Random Thoughts” have continued to function as my playground as well as serve as a microcosm for my creative process. I am an eclectic artist, stylistically as well as with respect to media and the “Random Thoughts” embody my many approaches to mark making. Some of the panels rely heavily on formal/graphic concerns and are almost architectural in nature, others are simply emotive expressions of color, some are minimal, others are densely textured. These different approaches occur concurrently in the studio; I don’t go through “periods” when I paint in one manner or another and it is only over time that they form individual bodies of work. I experience these distinctly different subsets as radiating spokes reaching outward from a central point in my being. I do not perceive these wide ranging expressions as unconnected; I see them as forming a treatise on process, “Random Thoughts” being one of a group of projects that i refer to as “Process as Product”
I have exhibited the “Random Thoughts” as individual paintings, as diptychs and triptychs and in larger groupings which have include both an installation at GRIDSPACE in 2016, consisting of 48 gridded paintings and a presentation of “100 Random Thoughts” for “Go Open Studios” in 2012. And I use these paintings as raw material when creating both the “Somewhere in Between” works and “Harmonic Convergence” images.
AS: In one of your texts, you described yourself as an abstract painter, being guided by color, manipulation of surface, and process. I also see quite a lot of narrative in your work, mostly related to nature. How important is “abstraction” in your work?
Nina Meledandri: I actually had very little of the formal training associated with being an “art major”. Aside from an intro level course I took no in depth art history classes; the lens (forgive the pun) through which I studied the evolution of visual practice was film & photography; not a framework which provides historical perspective spanning centuries. As for studio classes, while I did take color theory, 3-Dimensional design and some drawing before going full tilt into photography, I had no formal academic/crit experience with painting until much later; I am pretty much a self taught painter.
When I began painting, my initial impetus to pick up a brush came from a desire to convey manifestations of psychological states which I began to see as mapping explorations of the unconscious. Not surprisingly it was the Abstract Expressionists with whom I identified. My touchstones to the genre were expressive gesture, emotive color, the value of synchronicity and the use of universal symbols to enhance understanding. I have never felt my roots extend much further back into the canon of Western painting. Like many AbEx painters, the framework for my beliefs lay in Jungian philosophy; both my parents had eschewed their respective religions speaking instead of the collective unconscious as an organizing belief system. Studying the writings of Jung and his disciples, I encountered a rich and fertile framework of myth, symbols and dreams as well as potent support for feminine power. Looking more deeply into the work of artists who shared these interests I found myself profoundly moved by Rothko, de Kooning, Still, Pollack Gottlieb, Kadinsky and later Twombly, Snyder, Steir and Rothenberg.
The narrative quality is thus there, in that I find (usually in hindsight) that I am often describing a journey- sometimes relying on a deep dive into the unconscious, sometimes through evoking my love of natural forms. A very strong reference in my work has been specifically to pods, eggs, and flowers as symbols of the feminine, creation and growth. Their metaphorical significance as an expression of the cycle of life has been extremely important to me and this has become absorbed in my language as both a painter and a photographer. There was a time when I relied so heavily on this symbolic vocabulary that it become literal to me and a couple of days before my second show at David Findlay was to open, I sat bolt upright in bed, terrified that while the work in the exhibition was being presented as abstract, I had actually been painting from life.
AS: Tell me about your recent project, Nina’s Museum of Natural History.
it is wild and woolly
in the studio right now
fruit flies feasting on rotting apples, turnips & chestnut shells,
little indeterminate things swimming in the water
where i was trying to root some roses,
a swallowtail in chrysalis that might emerge any day
will stubbornly overwinter,
and boxes piled on boxes of pressed flowers:
my root cellar for winter.
This past spring I made a collaged piece for the exhibit “Among Friends” and with it a door that had been closed for some time, opened. In the subsequent months I began returning to mixed media, incorporating embroidery, discarded photos, overlooked watercolors, blotting papers and the natural objects that I obsessively collect. Over the summer it felt as if my palette was made up of pressed petals not paint, my supports moved from canvas and panels to abandoned scraps of paper and fabric. I would lay these things out on my work table and over time the pieces would kind of make themselves. It was a very intuitive way of working, and with all my references to the collective unconscious, for the first time I felt I was actually entering it.
In the fall I had the opportunity to participate in the first Crown Heights Open Studios. I looked around my studio and the phrase “Nina’s Museum of Natural History” popped into my head. I decided to present the entire studio as an installation. I wanted to relay the totality of what I had been engaged in: the collages, the obsessive collecting and cataloging of natural ephemera, the raising of swallowtails from caterpillar to butterfly, the photographs (a new project combining painting and photography: Harmonic Convergence). The more I found to include from the present, the more works from the past came to mind that had never been shown but which fit perfectly into this context.
During the period of time when I had stopped making photographs and before I taught myself to paint, I returned to mixed media work (something I had pursued alongside photography in college), this included developing a line of wearable art. I had attributed the block I experienced in my photographic practice to the conflict that arose between pursuing personal vision and creating a portfolio that would resonate with editors/art directors, so it perhaps was not surprising that I soon found myself again in the same predicament: I had turned my studio practice into a business and was simply making things that would sell. So, I stopped and taught myself to paint, with the idea that painting would be much less prone to commodification.
At the point when I had decided that the wearable art component of my mixed media work had become too commercial and restrictive, I announced to my mother that I was going to drop it and simply continue with the fine art aspect of that work. She informed me that I couldn’t do that because I “hadn’t trained as a painter”, that I needed to understand the “rules” of “formal” art making before I could break them. Until recently, I saw myself as having laughed off that comment, but it seems this is exactly what I did; I became a painter.
Nina’s Museum of Natural History is a return to the moment before that discussion, to a way of working that ironically, comes directly from my mother despite her best efforts to “educate” it out of me. Nonetheless, I dedicated this project to her spirit, both because of the love of nature that she installed in me and because she always believed that my studio space should be presented as an installation.
AS: And “starting w/(a) line”?
Nina Meledandri: “starting w/(a) line” is the current manifestation of my daily watercolor project. Years ago i began painting in watercolor every day and I see daily practice (both in watercolor and with photography) as the cornerstone of my process. Over the years this activity has taken form in many different projects.
For a while I kept differently themed journals making an entry in each every day. One was called “left handed”: painting with my left hand, another “still lives”: a painting from life, and a third was “starting w/(a) line” where i began each watercolor with a doodle. Currently,“starting w/(a) line” has morphed into my making a 5×7” watercolor each day that begins with a line drawn from one edge of the page to the other. The line always begins as a continuation from where it ended the day before. I started this iteration of the project in 2009 so “starting w/(a) line: 7.27.18” is around the 2,750th in a series of what is presently about 3,500 watercolors that, when put edge to edge, have a single line running through them.
AS: What would you like to share about your current work in the studio and upcoming projects?
Nina Meledandri: After coming off of three solo shows in as many years, I am going to live in Nina’s Museum of Natural History for a while. My goal is to stay committed to the rhythm of the process, allowing what needs to be made to come to me. That said, I am interested in pushing this work larger and as part of that process, I am super excited to start experimenting with paper making.
AS: For me there is a strong poetic / lyrical element in your work. What’s your take on that?
Nina Meledandri: That it is a deeply meaningful compliment to me and it addresses two of my fears as an artist, both which involve a struggle with one’s natural strengths. One of the first questions that many people ask on encountering Jung’s theories is which of his four personality types does one fall into. For me it was the “thinking” type. The evidence of this seemed clear: when asked a question I habitually answer with “I think” (not “I feel”), I have an extremely analytical approach to life and much of my early photography was conceptual in nature. However, it has always been profoundly important to me to make work that is emotive and has the power to initiate a response from the heart/soul before the brain has a chance to kick in. I see being a “thinking” type as potentially detrimental to my process and one of the biggest things to overcome as an artist.
Another of my fears has been “beauty” and by this I mean using beauty as a crutch, as an easy way out, perhaps to obfuscate a lack of content or truth. I recognize that one of my greatest strengths is as a colorist but inherent in that is the danger of exploiting color to bamboozle an audience. I faced this head on when my palette shifted from primarily earth tones to almost entirely pastels. I was, in a word, horrified, afraid of potentially cloying results but since the only tubes of paint that I was reaching for were pink, baby blue and pale yellow, there wasn’t much I could do except to learn to work with it.
For me, inherent in the word “poetic” is an essence of truth and “lyrical” evokes that which is deeply felt. Both words imply the presence of beauty and expression of personal vision. So, my take is that perhaps I am doing a decent job of walking the line between my head and my heart and perhaps for me “trust” is the next frontier.