This is the memory map of Mela M: the secrets that lies beneath the sea, the lost cities, the forgotten civilizations, covered by the rolling deep. She is an internationally known artist who thinks of poetry when she dreams of these silent cities, scattered in broken pieces, drifted across the sands. Haunted by the long-lost cities that have sunk under the waves, ancient towns that have been swept away by an encroaching sea, the artist dreams of buildings crumbled and tossed away in a tsunami, entire societies vanished and swallowed up by earthquakes. Under the wine dark seas, there is an entire built environment, a past recovered by divers and treasure hunters and archaeologists; a past that needs to be reconstructed.

This great unknown is the realm that exist under the sea. Only recently have devices been invented that allow us to map the ocean floor and to plumb the depths of the canyons that scar the floors of our planet. New ways of mapping have revealed not just an expanded geography but also sunken ruins that once were cities where people lived and loved and died. Streets where vendors plied their wares lie inert beneath the weight of water. Surviving walls that once were homes rise here and there. Presided over by drifting seaweed, these forgotten places are visited by darting fish and lie mute in their dark graves.

While she was working in Japan, Mela M became fascinated by the sunken city off the southern coast of Japan, known as The Yonaguni Monument. However, what makes this site unique is that this monolith rearing up from the seabed is caught halfway between two states. Are the structures off the coast of Yonaguni Jima an ancient city or are they rock formations pushed to the surface by earthquakes? The diver who discovered the terraces, Masaaki Kimura, is convinced that the rising walls are those of an ancient city, which sank thousands of years ago. But others disagree with the geologist and believe the site to be broken ledges of sharp-edged sandstone. If it is a city; it has no name. But other ancient cities that lie beneath the ocean retained their names.

Existing somewhere between science and poetry, between fact and wish, the ambivalent site in Japan was celebrated by Mela M in an expansive plateau of slabs, blue like the sea, unidentifiable as human habitation and yet clearly the product of human invention. The undecided place, so old that it eludes definability led the way to Mela M’s latest project.

Well known on three continents for her geometric installations, Mela M is a Postmodern inheritor of a Modernist legacy. Her most immediate formal ancestor may be El Lissitzky whose famed Proun Room debuted in 1923, one hundred years ago. “Prouns,” as the artist explained, existed in a liminal zone, caught someplace between drawing and sculpture. In using the evocative metaphor of traveling, El Lissitzky explained that his painted forms were “the station where one changes from painting to architecture.” In other words, art has moved off the wall—an inert painting to be looked at—to a new site—becoming the wall or architecture itself.

On the walls of his room, the shapes of El Lissitzky became dynamic elements in a theater for architecture. Before his time, the Russian artist introduced the idea of “theatricality” and installation, transforming art into what he wanted to be a new form of architecture. Once the viewer was directed by the artist to move around the room, following the shapes, the notion of time was introduced, and, with time, theatricality.

Like a play in a theater, the Proun existed only when the viewer was in the room. In the same way, the installation ceases to function without people to activate it. It is this quality of time and the significance of human habitation that allies El Lissitzky to architecture. Like El Lissitzky, Mela M has built an environment, a place where people can wander and wonder.

But she has exceeded her predecessor. Mela M has built a city similar to El Lissitzky. She started from flat and progressed to three dimensional forms, but the sources of her inspirations are both ancient and modern. El Lissitzky lived on the edge of great change, making art in the midst of a political and aesthetic revolution. But Mela M is watching her world being ravaged by environmental forces which are tearing it apart. If El Lissitzky had hopes for beginnings, Mela M wants us to reconsider what it means to build, to make, to construct, in the most literal sense of the word, a place for humans to live.

By “place” she is referring to earth itself, and this earth is all we have. The sunken cities are a warning and a prediction of the future that is coming in our century. We are watching the makings of our own Yonaguni. Miami is sinking, New York will be swallowed by ocean. Venice has become a city one rows through and the distinction between street and canal is getting lost. As if to counteract the dangers of obliteration, Mela M builds new environments. Her metanomic allusions to buildings may be quite real, but what Mela M constructs is totally metaphorical and completely poetic.

She builds carefully by hand, piece by piece, fragment by fragment. Her studio space could be mistaken for that of a professional carpenter, and her work is an extremely precise act of craft. Working obsessively, she generates hundreds of shapes and forms, which, like puzzle pieces, may or may not ever be fitted together.

If we think of Mela M in conventional terms, she would be an additive maker. In other words, she moves from basic to the simple, to the complex and complicated, creating more and more pieces, which, in turn, are added to more and more forms. To the word “additive” should be added the concept of “elements” or parts that may or may not belong to a whole. Another thought would be “slice,” indicating that somewhere there might be a single unit, or that in the future there might be a completed accumulation.

But for now, Mela M keeps the art objects suspended between the spaces of making, constructing and becoming.  Mela M is making allegories that transcend symbol making and she uses the tactic of allegory to force the viewer into a state of extended contemplation of the meaning of form itself. Mela M is a constructor in the pure sense of the word. Each object she makes is a part of a greater environment, the metropolis that she is building.

Imagine an agglomeration of built objects, carefully constructed so as to defy identification. Imagine forms that have no discernable function, existing in terms of color. Hue, rather than functionality, rules these shapes that share certain basic characteristics. The fragments begin as flat pieces of raw wood, rectangles projecting flanges like fins. Rather than seeming inert or frozen, the cutouts of Mela M seem to be alive and growing and expanding but for what purpose? Once again, the viewer is placed in a zone of ambivalence: Is this a living being, throwing off extensions or is this a fragment, broken from something larger? Either way, the original use is unclear, and then we are forced to make our own interpretations.

And the mystery of Mela M’s poetic shards deepens. She doubles the shape, adds thickness with new shapes on all four sides. Mela M makes three-dimensional shapes.

What this artist is doing is making art by presenting building as an activity, legitimate in and of itself. Although any one of these objects can and does stand on its own as a work of art, each element is also destined to be one part that composes in a collective mass. The viewer begins to wonder about the protrusions that jut out and thinks of joints and joins and connections. Has the artist constructed thick slices that can eventually be slotted into another slice? Mela M creates what appear to be building blocks but while they can conceptually connect with each other, they cannot make a whole. The metropolis is in turmoil, spewing fragments. The theme of separateness is elevated by the way that Mela M paints the fragments. Each object is its own shape and this distinctness becomes more apparent as the wooden structure is transformed from raw to flat white to a smooth sanded finish, ready to take coats of paint.

The colors of Mela M’s “building blocks” are stunning and striking, running in a riot of running colors. In building her metropolis, Mela M fills the space with shapes that stride visually into view. This is an alive environment that refuses restraint. Today, ancient cities and old ruins are pure stone but once the façades were brilliant and polychromed in an exuberance that defies today’s taste for subdued colors. The Parthenon was positively gaudy, and the classical Roman buildings left no surface untouched and unembellished. Just as the glittering encrustations disguised the structure and the Roman engineering, Mela M evokes the ancient in postmodern terms by overdetermining shape and color, reminding us that the ancients decorated the surfaces of their buildings.

Modernism ushered in long theoretical discussions over the merits of “dressed” and “undressed” architectural exteriors, with modernism and its lack of ornamentation being scandalously “nude.” Postmodernism brought color back to architecture but often with caution. Mela M revels in the freedom to paint any color on any surface in any combination and creates a built environment that redresses the discussion of façade in architecture. Her metropolis is a city dancing with joy, flaunting its fashion, reveling in the display of exquisite craft. This is how humans create their built environments—we want to enrich the earth, mimicking its manifold colors and forms. Rather than making the surface a modernist backdrop, she explores the possibilities of making a flat plane come to life. Never introducing dimension and keeping her designs strictly graphic, Mela M paints a flat color over the construction and then she adds layers of colors, building a progression of hues marching across the face of her shapes.

The colored designs force a dialogue between the form and the colors that disguise and enhance its object-ness. But she does not stop with flat colors. Mela M then introduces a verbal/visual pun on the idea of building: she literally builds up and out small squares of color, smaller square growing on top of a larger square. These tiers of thick paint segments are attached arbitrarily to the structures. This extreme complexity that is a play between flat and raised, suggests a deliberate bas relief that plays with idea of a growth or a crust that has naturally evolved. As the audience is forced by the elaborate play of tropes to examine each element of every construction, a truth slowly dawns: the artist has built a metropolis that is deconstructing itself. The shapes are in a state of upheaval, twisting themselves inside out and throwing themselves upside down. Far from being inert pieces of wood, the forms are alive and interacting with each other.

Once again Mela M places the viewer in a liminal zone: she is building a work of architecture that is all façade. There is no enclosure; there are only pieces that imply the future or past possibility of a compound. If her architecture is all façade, it is also all surface. The idea of communication among the fragments is enhanced by the small appendages or star like shapes that can be added to or hooked on the fins of the larger forms. These are like ornaments and announce that the house that is being built by Mela M is a place where the audience can wander and play and even participate in “making” the environment.

If she is building a city, then this is a city in flux, strewn about the room as if it was taken up by a giant tsunami which churns buildings into splinters that swirl in the waves. In this activity, the shapes become waves and lose their role as elements of a whole. The form is denied a unity through the disruption of colors that change as the structure is rotated from side to side, from edge to edge.

The viewer is expected to spend time with each segment, examine its top, its bottom, and its edges. Mela M offers an infinite variety of perspectives for each building block. The solidity of form is broken with molten colors that are red and orange and volcanic, suggesting an inwardly burning wave of lava which pushes the city into the sea. The Metropolis is in motion, like a Proun, it is traveling.   And yet the fragments preserve the idea of the city while the colors retain the remains of a metropolis as it collides with the sea.

The elements that were once part of a city become, through an act of formal metamorphosis, fish-like shapes that now slip through the enveloping waters and swim through the waves. The basic colors of the fragments are sea blue and sky gray, but these surface hues are overlaid with dazzling patches of color and intriguing phalanges that reach out. Imagine a metropolis that is rising and rolling on the waves, unraveling, and becoming an environment that is suspended in time and space simultaneously, and you will have visited the Metropolis of Mela M.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
Los Angeles area writer and critic.
October 29th, 2018