In her solo exhibition Chat & Chew at DFN Projects, multi-disciplinary artist Melissa Stern features drawings, assemblages, and sculptures which probe into the surface of social decorum not only with a biting wit but also with a tender gaze. Her outlandish characters invoke in the viewer an unsettling tension between elusive simplicity of forms and deep psychological complexities. Couples stare or reach out to one another, mouthless faces seem to whisper—whether rendered with graphite, pastel, and colored pencils, or molded with clay, these figures form an array of characters we may interpret as archetypes in dreams or comic strips. They remind me of duos in a Becket play or characters in Saul Steinberg’s absurd universe—with Stern’s very own take. Stern’s protagonists express distinct attitudes and appear to have lots to say. Underneath the verbiage, you can sense a vulnerable core that is silent, on the verge of coming up to the surface.
In Brothers, a pair of gender-ambiguous figures made of painted clay, paint and wood are attached at the hips and their naked bodies are adorned with a back stripe that goes from top to bottom. They remind me of prisoners or circus acrobats, or both. Their nakedness makes them vulnerable (besides a bulbous Charlie Chaplin-like black shoe) and the symbiosis point between them is charged by the spaces in between—they are both close and apart, playful and melancholic, bound by their black stripes and a rectangular black common ground. Melissa Stern says that the idea and title of Self Portrait with an Imaginary Brother, a Willem De Kooning drawing she saw many years ago, stayed with her. “As an only child I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of siblings and have always wondered what it would be like if I had one. This piece was the first in a series that I had thought of doing- about my imaginary siblings.”
Stern has always been interested in gender-based stereotypes. For instance, the title of the wall sculpture 4 Out of 5 Women Agree is based on a line from some old marketing campaign, generalizing and asserting as a proven fact what women like or dislike. Stern pokes fun at this generic one liner—the females here are made radically different in shape and media. “The idea that you could make a sweeping statement about what women think always struck me as funny and cynical,” Stern says. At the same time, she also made the wall sculpture Wheels, where she includes found objects like a red toy car to portray a stereotype of a “boy’s” thing—My son never wanted or was interested in cars or trucks- typical “boy” things, she says.
In an earlier drawing, Back to Back, Stern reflects on relationships between people, here 2 figures sit apart with their backs to each other, a green hybrid shape separates and unites them at the same time: they sit on it like a chair, and it moves upward between them like a tree, a monster, or a scary ghost, as Stern puts it, “the chasm of space that exists between understanding each other.” There are ghostly remnants of erased figures throughout the drawing, like memories or repressed feelings. These linear stick figures resemble gender-less marionets. We are invited to project our own psyche inside their lines.
All Photo courtesy of Garvey|Simon, NYC.
Melissa Stern: Chat & Chew at Garvey Simon DFN Projects, 16 E 79th St, Suite G-2, NYC Opening Reception: Thursday, March 24th, 5-7PM The show runs through April 22nd
Melissa Stern lives in NYC and the Hudson Valley. She studied Anthropology and Art History at Wesleyan University. Her mixed material sculpture and drawings are in a number of corporate and museum collections including The International Center For Collage, News Corp. Inc. JP Morgan Chase, The Fine Art Museum, The Racine Art Museum, The Museum of Art and Design, New York, and The Wiseman Museum in Minneapolis. Stern’s solo showed at The Akron Museum of Art (Ohio), Redux Contemporary Art Center (Charleston), The Weisman Museum (Minneapolis) Real Art Ways (Hartford), The Kranzberg Art Center (St. Louis), and The Fuller Craft Museum (Boston). Stern had three solo shows in the past eighteen months. Does She or Doesn’t She at Firecat Projects in Chicago, STRONGER THAN DIRT a twenty-year retrospective at The Lockwood Gallery in Kingston, NY, and HOUSEBROKEN at the gallery LTD in Brooklyn. She was a Senior Critic, writing about art and culture for The New York Press and CityArts for eight years, and is a Contributing Writer to Hyperallergic and artcritical.