Dean Melbourne is an artist whose oeuvre is dizzying in its profusion of interpretations. Religious, literary and metaphysical allusions saturate his imagery with symbolism and give it a refreshing depth in the world of minimalist art affairs. In visiting the artist’s new exhibition, ‘This Myth’, we encounter the narratives of Dante, Boccaccio and Shakespeare married together in a mesmerising spectacle. The exhibition, skilfully curated by Coates & Scarry, is above all an ode to transformation and harks back to Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’. In ‘Book One’ of his opus magnum, Ovid writes that his ‘purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind’. Indeed, ‘Metamorphosis’ is filled with stories where gods and mortals disguise themselves by morphing with plants and animals, often protected by impenetrable woodlands. Darkness, erotica and prophecies are omnipresent in Ovid’s volatile fictions that nurture the possibility of the impossible. Melbourne’s paintings similarly seem to depict the moments when nature reclaims humans in the most vehement, yet uncannily pleasurable way.
The artist’s canvases arouse strong responses from the first encounter and remain under your eyelids, reverberating with their raw imagery. Their internal dynamics spill over the frames, alluding to the disappearance of borders between the real and the Ovidian. ‘Vital Force’, for instance, depicts a semi-naked woman with a painted face exposing blood-stained hands. Directly above her head, a Venetian mask is hovering, indicating a game of alter egos. It is a literal invitation to enter the world of the artist, who often admits to projecting his fantasies on to the figures that inhabit his canvases. In the same way, Melbourne’s self-portrait ‘Hawk I’ is another visual exploration of the many personas that allow him to navigate the intricate geographies of his own mind. This small photograph is covered in a thick layer of paint to the point that it loses its printed quality and becomes an oil painting depicting a phantom of a bird. Set against black, the bird pierces the gaze of the viewer with its yellow eyes. It is a bird inhabited by a human, who speaks from behind his struggle with brutal honesty and unconfined imagination. Nearby is ‘Black Phosphor’, a lonesome garland stretched across the painting. Again, a tar-like background penetrates woodland leaves but both blackness and lush vegetation complement each other; both hide the lustful creatures that we are about to discover.
Pulsating brush strokes of fluorescent colour and the promise of lascivious encounters attract the gaze. There is a voyeurism at work. Conceived spontaneously, the artist’s paintings represent a style comparable to Cecily Brown’s ‘muscular expressionism’ but bend toward more figurative scenes. This is best exposed in the middle room of the exhibition where large-scale paintings are tenanted by agonised bodies of allegorical origin. ‘The Trick’ shows three naked figures, concealing themselves among the trees from a fiery comet and a Titian-esque blue sky. Safe within the mystery of the woods, they seem to enjoy the anonymity of their mystical gathering. The wood is a place of ritual. It is suggestive of Freud’s id, the sphere of the subconscious compelled by primal instincts. Compositionally, the artist’s immersive canvases recollect claustrophobic Mannerist art but they also point to the early Renaissance, with angelic heads a la Giotto (in Melbourne’s ‘This Myth’), as well as abominations from medieval manuscripts. Melbourne’s visceral approach to the creative process is palpable. It is very easy to lose yourself in this world, shaped from the artist’s memories, childhood books and the places that nurtured his imagination.
Brought up in a house backed on to woodland, the artist transformed it with his own mythology, and with those of a darker and more sensuous mood. Melbourne constantly takes a risk to transgress another shady crook of his subconscious in pursuit of a self that is illusory. This can be observed in multi-layered tensions expressed in relentless battles between art and nature, victims and hunters, depth and surface, dreams and reality, and finally, light and darkness. We can only hope that his investigations will not cease.
‘This Myth’ is visually stunning, proving that there is still much to be discovered in the medium of painting.