Postmodern art is characterized by its condition of betweenness—caught between the past and the present. Unlike the conceits of Modernism and its unwavering belief in rejecting the past by predicting the future, Postmodernism has embraced history and came to the pragmatic conclusion that because the future hasn’t happened yet, art can only be situated in the now.  Contemporary Postmodern painting is sited between the past and the present, inhabiting this intermediary space as an immediate presence. The paintings of Mela M inhabit this in-between place and challenge the Modernist boundaries between art forms with Postmodern interrogations. Looming above and enveloping the viewer, these paintings confirm and deny their status as painted surfaces and demand a reconsideration of the conditions of possibility. These painted architectonic fragments exist in a new place that refuses to be defined. If Modernism insisted upon maintaining the binary of “either/or”, then Postmodernism prefers the less stable but more open oscillation  of “both/and” that is theoretically described as “ betweenness”.

For the artist, this state of ”between-ness” is a complex and ever-changing condition, producing her serious and searching rethinking of painting as an environment of memory that shifts the ground between drawing and construction, between translucency and texture, and between architecture and painting.  Mela M does not make paintings, does not make sculpture, does not make architecture; she does all these things and more: she makes memories out of metonymic fragments that float upon the surface of a new kind of architectonic painting. The art of Mela M needs to be understood as a theoretical hybrid, a common condition of Postmodern art. Hybridity, by definition, is always on the way to the next thing.

Mela M is between worlds, the Old and the New. She came to the city of the 21st-century, Los Angeles, by way of Russian cities steeped in the past, Kiev and St. Petersburg. Walking through these old cities, one encounters shifts in history, walking from the elegant Baroque airs of the Imperial era, through the barrenness of Communism,  and in turning a corner to encounter Ukrainian designs in a Korean neighborhood, it becomes clear that one has been a flaneur through a fragmented past. Like many émigrés the artist has memories of home, overlaid with the cacophony of the present. Working with an architectural material, wood, the artist builds shaped paintings sawed from what appears to be a larger implied urban setting, carefully inscribed in a drafting style on the hard, unyielding service. These precise and angular shapes crisscrossed with edges refer to the strong contrast between light and dark that delineates shapes in the desert light of California. Within the here and now hard edges of Los Angeles is the open territory of softened memories of a Russian past.

The large and imposing constructions are buildings in and of themselves but their solidity is diffused by the dreamlike state of drawings that are not paintings of places that are not landscapes.  Despite the exactitude of the rendering and the sharpness of the edges there is a lack of specificity of site, suggesting an organic development of shapes and colors that is entirely intuitive. Mela M searches for colors and textures, mixing and combining and experimenting until she finds the tone she has been seeking. The found colors, rediscovered, function as a totalizing atmospheric membrane across which the drawn environment is stretched. There are sections of built up colors to connote the curiously three-dimensional quality of Russian colors, seen through rain and mist. These unique colors, like the experience of finding them, are unrepeatable, a moment that is past but frozen. Upon careful examination, the viewer discovers that these colors range between thin coats to build up blocks that suggest architectural modeling that is, nevertheless, solid paint. This solidity of shape metaphorically anchors the ephemeral conditions of the multiple perspectives that set the vision in motion.

On the move, we could be anywhere, East or West, America or Russia, or we could be in a dream of the past, the metonymy of a memory.  Location is anywhere as the spectator mentally flies above and around architectonic drawings that have yet to materialize. The tall and pale structures loom above the viewer, inviting a visual envelopment and an imaginary entrance into what appears to be an urban space. But this is the spaceless space of dream and memory, as the process of remembering diffuses and softens with the passage of time. The whole of the experience is lost but metonymic parts remain. The textures that are randomly employed evoke the materials of remembered buildings in Russian cities. The perspective is high and mobile, as though the stationary spectator is freed from the gallery to fly above these pale worlds and swoop down and around pieces of architecture that appears metonymically, hinting at something that is absent yet whole, irredeemably lost. Within solidity and presence there is dream and imagination, composed of fleeting memories of images conjured up during sleep.

Mela M, was a product, not of the Cold War, but of Glasnost, an event that occurred when a formerly closed society began gingerly  to open itself to the outside world and, most significantly, to itself, to its own history. This fact alone puts Mela M in a place that is very different from that of Komer and Melamid who defected from Russia in the 1970s and produced parodies of Russian propaganda art, the dominant form in their time.  For the generation of Mela M, the singularly rich heritage of the long suppressed Russian Avant-Garde was being revealed to the new art students whose teachers were often from the generation of Socialist Realists.  She was fortunate in her teachers who passed on the once forbidden knowledge of Malevich and Popova and Rodchenko and Rozanova and Tatlin, pioneers of abstract art in Russia.

The revolutionary intentions of these artists to make art for the new Communist world would be crushed under Stalin, who wanted only illustrations of his power.  For almost seventy years, Avant-Garde art was all but lost. When the Modernist art was re-instated, time had passed and it was impossible for the new generation to go back in time and pick up where their predecessors had left off.  Despite the surface similarity between Mela M and the followers of Malevich and Tatlin, she also had a strong affinity for the more expressionistic and old-fashioned art of Kadinsky. As with all Postmodern artists, Mela M is belated, maturing as an artist at the end of one tradition and at the beginning of another. Contemporary artists need a strategy to confront the past, and in order to move beyond her heritage, the artist positioned herself in between logic and expression and history and the present.

These artists of the past had created a Modernist art movement that had to be reckoned with. The question for any Russian artist reclaiming this heritage was one of position, that is, how to respect the heritage and yet go beyond the past. About 20 years ago, the American theorist, Harold Bloom, lifted an unexpected term from the legal profession-“misprision“- which means a deliberate misunderstanding. Freed from the confines of the law, this word took on a new art meaning, referring to the new artist encountering, emulating and surpassing a precursor by finding a new place to make art. This strategy of moving away from the shadow of a dominating presence is called a “swerve” by Bloom. An artist must veer off and glance away from the past to avoid being a mere reverential copyist or devoted follower.

To the contemporary artist, idealism as intent is impossible in a world that is unsettled, mobile, global and without fixed points. Postmodern painters have inherited the stance of purity from the Modernists but they have also come to understand that any notion of “purity” must be subverted and deconstructed. Mela M‘s misprision of their earlier works uses their suggestions but avoids their influences. One of the strategies of Postmodernism is to retrieve the past as a means of finding the future. Postmodernism is always about relativity, which means that the present is doomed to be characterized by being unfixed.  In contrast to the dogmatic prose of Modernism, there is a poetry to Postmodernism, clearly on view and captured in the works of Mela M, a melancholy poetry of lamenting lost worlds of certainty and of reconciliation to an unsteady place of  betweenness  where anything can happen.

As a member of the always belated Postmodern generation, Mela M’s  large constructions are examples of the strategy of maneuvering between genres and disciplines. In writing of Postmodern architecture, Postmodern theorists, such as Jacques Derrida, write eloquently of the site of undecidability: that which is in-between. Postmodernism rejects the fixed positions of polarities, the unnatural division between opposites.  Mela M swerves from the deductive purity of the shaped canvases of Frank Stella and arrives at an oscillation that exploits the inherent objectness of any constructed work of art that shifts back and forth between painting and architecture. At the same time, her work appears to reinterpret the flying forms of Malevich and the “painterly architectonics” of Popova. Denied the Modernist polarity of placing herself against another tradition, Mela M deconstructs the intrinsic essentials of painting and locates the opposite of Greenbergian “flatness” and “surface”—the givens of painting. For her, the opposite of flatness must be structure and the opposite of surface must be dream. But she keeps both conditions intact, creating oscillation and betweenness.

The artist re-examines the play between two and three dimensions and theoretically and literally deconstructs painting and sculpture and architecture to reveal the inevitable instability of artificially constructed categories. The metonymic deconstruction allows the works to function as signs of betweenness by refusing the boundaries of the rigid rectangle or square. Mela M opens up a landscape of process and becoming where the past is moving toward the present, intersecting waking thoughts with a haunting. The structured built environment of fragmented memories open up a new place of undecidability. It is here that Mela M’s work is poised, inhabiting a historical place between the Paper Architecture of the Russian Avant-Garde- dreams of buildings never built—and the newness of Postmodern field paintings without a center because they cannot be restricted by defined space.  Somewhere between the inheritance of constructed drawings and built paintings is a Postmodern strategy of reinvention of structures, drawn and colored and textured with softening memories captured within the ruled lines. Misprision has opened up a new space for a new time that is in-between an unfolding of floating memory, of resonating metonymy and a deconstruction of known certainties. We are in a new place.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
Los Angeles area writer and critic.
Catalog, June 2002, Los Angeles