Institute of Contemporary Arts The Mall, London, SW1Y 5AH

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Bjarne Melgaard: A House To Die In

25 September - 18 November 2012

Review by Amy Budd

‘A house to commit suicide in. A house to die inside.’ Scrawled onto sheets of paper and displayed in abundant layers across tables in the lower galleries of the ICA, these one-liner notations both activate and describe the premise of Bjarne Melgaard’s first UK solo exhibition at the ICA, London. Rather than exhibiting as an individual artist, as the title suggests, Melgaard instead plays the oblique role of both instigator and collaborator, diluting his own practice by inviting a cast of architects and untrained artists to both co-imagine and co-produce his ‘ideal’ home, ‘A House To Die In.’

The task of designing the exterior façade of Melgaard’s morbid abode is allocated to the award-winning Norwegian architects Snøhetta, while a group of mental health outpatients become the fabricators of the interior furnishings. The result is an eccentric, and frequently bewildering installation unfolding across both upper and lower galleries of the ICA, incorporating a spectrum of visual styles and material forms, anchored by traces of collaborative conversations evidenced through printed email exchanges, and cumulatively contained within an acid colour décor.

Sandwiched in the lower gallery is a life-sized maquette of Melgaards ‘ideal home,’ an irregular structure of wooden prisms pockmarked with holes and rag-rolled in black paint. Although revealing only one, exterior, aspect of the whole building, the structure is nevertheless a hefty, colossal black mass, shaped by angular theatricality, which looks more likely to find purpose as a stage - a temporary platform for projection - than as vessel for inhabitation.

Luminous pea-green carpets printed with naïve motifs of tigers and hybrid monsters crumple around the base, while tables littered with printed email correspondence alongside other studio debris (from cans of diet coke to small-scale architectural models and plaster-cast creatures impaled on sticks) similarly encircle the structure. Each random item evidences the push-pull of ideas, as Snøhetta architects abstract away from Melgaard’s own hand-scribbled imperatives for ‘a house not for living’ and more nonsensical commands like ‘anti-social reform crocodile’ to produce the dense charcoal building in the corner; an unlikely collaborative product, which is somehow the result of the narratives exhibited here.

A contrasting palette of black wood against metallic blue walls continues in the upper galleries, where eye-popping neon orange walls, swathes of rippling purple and green unfitted carpet and sexually suggestive black rubber cyber-furniture transform the elegant Regency period Nash and Brandon rooms into bizarre domestic spaces. Overall it’s a surreal environment, so heavily cushioned that it is both comforting and claustrophobic. While email records and studio ephemera convey collaboration downstairs, here it is evidenced across the surfaces of paintings collectively produced by Melgaard and the ‘Bellevue Survivors’, a group of artists who have received no formal art education and have had, prior to this project, little to no contact with the art world.

Giving over his Brooklyn-based studio to these untrained artists, Melgaard’s original painterly depictions are erased from each untitled canvas - seventeen in total - through a democratic process of co-production. Visually disparate, chimerical scenarios and figurations are incorporated into his own handiwork to liberate his original paintings from a singular sense of authorship; each canvas exhibits different artistic styles and influences, from photorealism, to fauvist abstraction, graffiti-style street art and signature art brut expression.

A taste for fantastical imagery proliferates: primary-coloured Keith Haring figures protrude tongues from profile faces (Bjarne Melgaard and Joel Saladino, Untitled, 2012) while in another work psychedelic depictions of platypus, a recurring emblem of piecemeal collaboration here, are shown alongside a bloated creature bearing the inscription ‘Jean Dubuffet’ (Bjarne Melgaard and Ruben Lopez, Untitled, 2012). Wilful slippage between natural forms is a recurring trope: the painted contours of a fox morph into moss-ridged mountains surrounded by water (Barnes Mallard and Sean Mansfield, Untitled, 2010) while elsewhere a pair of lips, a remnant from Melgaard’s original painting, morph into female genitals positioned between the splayed legs of a reclining female nude, revealing her surreal sex as she clutches a fish in one hand (Bjarne Melgaard and Annatina Miescher, Untitled, 2012).

The reworking of Melgaard’s original paintings, albeit consensual, courts readings of aesthetic mutilation - the violent ‘improvement’ of a canvas in the hands of another artist - rather than appearing as straightforward products of fruitful collaboration. Alongside this, literal depictions of disturbing mutilation also feature in a collection of explicitly impaled and sexually exaggerated small-scale figurative sculptures, clustered at one end of the gallery, the most grotesque of which appear to be women.

But what would normally be categorised, as ‘Outsider Art’ seems to have greater inclusivity here. Jean Dubuffet (referenced in one painting) characterises Art Brut as “those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses’ which at once contradicts the processes at work in Melgaard’s collaborative project, which insists upon collective and democratic structures that engender the production of ‘new’ artwork within his shared studio environment. Moreover, the project initiates a mutual exchange between one and other, with Melgaard himself a serial collaborator, benefitting not only from others realising both divisive ‘proposals’, but also through perverting his studio setting in order to challenge his own aesthetic language.

The generosity of spirit here is surprising, particularly in the context of a solo show, which admittedly includes this varied cast of collaborators under only one artist’s name. But in exemplifying the processes and products of co-production throughout ‘A House To Die In,’ Melgaard offers an alternative perspective on the vital potential of collaborative practice, where trans-disciplinary approaches can exceed the limits of quasi-social experimentation to transform untrained artists into the ‘makers of meaning, rather than passive recipients.’

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