"They have a new family in contemporary art," Mel Chin explained on a guided tour through his new exhibition at McColl Center for Visual Art. Though he was talking about "Unauthorized Collaborations," the altered paintings he completed while in residency at McColl, the phrase actually works for all of his art pieces on display, which are appropriated, then manipulated to fulfill his conceptual visions.
Through the exhibition, visitors will learn that no object is too foreign to be employed in an art project. Recap: Mel Chin is a semi-retrospective show placing recent projects with work created during his Sept. 2012-March 2013 Knight Residency at the Center. The Houston-born artist has won too many awards and fellowships to list here, but suffice it to say that the self-proclaimed "recovering conceptual artist" has a can't-miss show that's currently on view at McColl.
The fun begins with your first step into the show: Hanging above the welcome desk is the ominous totem "Cross for the Unforgiven" (2002), a group of eight AK-47s bent, welded and cut into the shape of a Maltese cross, the symbol of the First Crusade. The weapon changed the face of warfare when it was first manufactured in 1947 and doled out to Russian allies, and now can be seen as a symbol of the questionable causes and moralistic agendas that are our modern-day versions of the Crusades.
A further step leads to a confrontation with a giant spider. "The Cabinet of Craving" is an eight-legged, painted oak monster with Queen Anne feet and a silver tray and porcelain teapot in its abdomen. The swallowed objects represent threatening addictions: the 19th-century British craving for Chinese porcelain and tea, and the Chinese desire for opium and silver, which eventually led to the devastating Opium Wars. The comical face of the spider, carved as an English bulldog frowning in the style of a Chinese taotie mask (representing gluttony), frighteningly confronts all who will pass under or through it.
A series of paintings constituting the "Unauthorized Collaborations" are the fruit of Chin's McColl Center labors, hanging below the imposing arachnid form. Chin collects the paintings from secondhand outlets and alters them to reveal or create desires and addictions like possession, revenge and jealousy.
The second room of the exhibition has a seamless flow, and curator Lorie Mendes should be commended for her placement choices. A pristine kitchen space is stocked with darkly manipulated appliances, all of which would still function apart from the crafty tweaks by Mr. Chin: a percolator with no spout and two handles to burn its user; a toaster with sealed slots; a stand mixer's attachment blade that now functions as a Rorschach test; and a sink that's given an extra drain to reference female genitalia, submissively positioned below the reaching masculine hardware.
The appliances are all made by Sunbeam Corporation, whose former CEO is pictured across the room in the "Metal Point Portraits." The previous head of Sunbeam, "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, was presumably a victim of lead poisoning, as were composer Ludwig van Beethoven and murderer William Garner, also pictured. Their visages are squeezed inside tight frames outwardly lined with straitjacket canvas and sealed shut with leather straps. Each was made with lead paint on file folders, looking lifeless with scratched out eyes (actually positioned at gaps in the folders). Beethoven was found to have traces of lead in his hair, which was possibly to blame for his erratic behavior and, eventually, death. Dunlap was a corporate executive who earned his "Chainsaw" nickname by using ruthless tactics to downsize and turn larger profits — a cracked line down the front of his skull traces the path of market shares Sunbeam took when his book-cooking was revealed. The portrait on the right shows a lead-poisoned Garner, who at 19 killed five children with a fire he planted to cover up a robbery. Heavy shadowing on his forehead indicates where lead poisoning affects the brain.
These are the strongest three works in the show because of their visual draw, but also because they represent the torturous effects of lead poisoning, which Mr. Chin is taking big steps to raise awareness of and to eradicate from inner-city soil throughout America. The next room houses a long desk reminiscent of a law library, where visitors can design their own "Fundred," a fake $100 bill, to donate to Operation Paydirt. Once enough are collected, they will be taken to the steps of Congress as a creative petition to clean urban soil of lead poisoning.
In this exhibit, visitors witness what a positive impact Chin's presence has been in Charlotte, both through spreading the word about lead contamination and through his level of artistic integrity.