AS YOU ARE A SAVVY and a dedicated reader, here for your delectation is a quick quiz in the pestering style of the SAT analogy, but more akin in spirit to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book.
- If critics from the pre-modern period considered craft to be the opposite of art (craft vs. art), which binary most accurately represents the prevailing view today?
a) craft as handicraft vs. fine art
b) craft as low art vs. high art
c) craft as primitive art, outsider art, or folk art
art as material culture or visual culture
d) craft as material culture vs. art as material culture
Did you find this exercise maddening? Answer yes or no.
But before you answer, keep in mind that “material culture” is merely one neologism used to describe the many forms of contemporary art, and that almost all the other terms above have been ejected from the critical lexicon—“fine art” being a vestige of the former beaux arts hegemony and therefore passé; “primitive” or “low” art, as opposed to “high” art, being considered too hierarchical, judgmental, or Eurocentric.
If you answered no, drop this journal immediately and take a little time to research artists born in the late 1940s who made small, representational sculptures in wood. (This might take about five months if you have a good research library handy. However, if you narrow your search to artists who also expressed a personal faith in a conventional denomination, it will hardly take any time at all. You will then be frustrated).
If you answered yes, you may proceed directly with this reading.
Like many artists born during the postwar boom, James Mellick kept making and teaching art while critics and academicians dickered about the term for what he was doing. As an aesthetic category, “craft” traditionally denoted neutrality in meaning, formal acuity, and technique. Formal definitions for “art” roved about restlessly in late twentieth-century discourses, depending on the commentator’s fervor for one brand of erudition or the other, and the year. Art that was admitted to the critics’ canon at this time tended to excoriate traditional aesthetic qualities such as compositional unity and technical expertise, in favor of unbridled self-expression. However, other expressions of art were driven by pristine objectivity with no taint of “statement” evident; still others offered subjective jeremiads against all the conventions of “art” and its institutions. Meanwhile, the idea-driven work known broadly as conceptual art was also on the rise, often intentionally bypassing aesthetic discipline or rigor in the traditional sense. All of this knocked craft down a few more pegs.
A deceptively simple work like Mellick’s Bird Dog (2003) tendered the artist’s nagging suspicion that most of what concerned him, and what should probably have interested the rest of society, wasn’t really being “gotten” at all, by anyone. A retriever strains forward like an arrow in flight, intent on flushing out its prey, genetically predisposed to hunt, equipped for success with an array of honed senses…so focused, in fact, that it does not register the quacking duck flapping on its rump, practically mugging for the viewer. Most of Mellick’s pieces require at least eighty-five hours of labor, but the intricate, invisible joinery that kept Bird Dog on point took more than three hundred hours. Wooden sculptures like these have no interior armature to buttress them; they need to be perfectly engineered to stand upright on their own. Balancing them is not unlike coaxing a newborn giraffe to walk. Whether Mellick’s dogs are able to stand up as allegories, on the other hand, falls to the mercy of the viewers, and how hard they are willing to work.
Specific, often catastrophic events inspired the dog allegories that became Mellick’s most popular works. For example, The Burning of Ol’ Yeller (1988) memorialized Mellick’s profound sense of grief over the rampaging wildfire that started as a controlled burn but eventually scorched 150 thousand acres at Yellowstone National Park in 1988 [see Plate 1]. No doubt, the very notion of a “controlled burn” within the context of unpredictable natural forces struck the artist as oxymoronically irresistible.
The 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster percolated into Da Vinci’s Dog (1987), a mobile that dangles an elegant, but utterly panicked Italian greyhound from the ceiling by a thread. Here, Mellick imagines the fictional moment when Leonardo, thoroughly established in historical accounts as an animal lover, tossed his beloved hound out the window in a flying contraption of his own devising, hoping for an ah-ha moment. You can imagine how gravity resolves that story. In a wider sense, Mellick thinks of DaVinci’s Dog as an editorial about the failure of genius and especially our naïve faith in technological invention—a force as capable of blowing up its greatest adherents as saving them.
As the events that precipitated Mellick’s allegories fade into the past, their original meanings become somewhat inscrutable, and they often morph into more universal statements. For instance, decades after Mellick completed Ol’ Yeller, bushfires continue to scour vast spans of wilderness, from southern California and Arizona to Indonesia, Japan, and Australia. The initial metaphor of human negligence and its consequences for the environment remains relevant. On a compositional level, the churning legs of a generic yellow dog, fleeing with a small, stunned grizzly in its jaws and crowned with a violently bright carmine ridge of flame, conveys dynamism, clean lines, silken surfaces, and balance. On a completely superficial level, the work remains gorgeous to behold, regardless of the viewer’s ability to connect it with environmental catastrophes.
Mellick dared to operate in the vast twentieth-century divide between craft and art, which subjected him to automatic marginalization in some quarters, regardless of his skill. He could do nothing else. Whether he was tagged as a woodworker expanding the craft tradition with allegorical content, or as a sculptor using woodworking techniques to spin narrative streams and make “statements,” he did not quite belong to either sphere. Although the critical intolerance that had created this gap relaxed greatly by the 1990s, drawing craft and art closer together, Mellick always suspected that his frank, unapologetic allegories of the late 1970s and ’80s made his standing as an artist vulnerable, even relegating him to the dog pound of art. He remained true to himself, but never knew whether he had become a genuine stray, a mutt and a mongrel in that fickle place we call the art world. He admits he spent many a dark night of the soul baying at the moon, chained out in the backyard, longing to be let back into the house or, alternatively, hating the thought of confinement.
Actually, he knew success. In fact, Mellick’s future initially looked as promising as a honeymoon suite: during grad school in 1972, Mellick had several pieces purchased by Robert Indiana, the pop artist known for the iconic LOVE sculpture, for a Midwestern museum. One of the most eminent curators of the time, Jan van der Marck of the Detroit Arts Institute, juried his early works favorably, became a longstanding confidante, and invited him to exhibit at Dartmouth University’s gallery. While teaching sculpture, printmaking, and design at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire, he was invited to interview for a position at prestigious Smith College being vacated by Leonard Baskin, the renowned printmaker and sculptor. Instead, Mellick ended up establishing the first art-major program for Houghton College in New York. Leaving Houghton in 1981, he experienced a solid decade of exhibits, representation through a succession of galleries, and numerous “Best of Show” or museum purchase prizes, particularly at respected venues in his home state, Ohio, at a time when Ohio ranked third in the nation for art-related endowments.
As a painting major at Southern Illinois University, Mellick invented a new art format by stretching canvases tautly over the irregular surfaces of tall, vertical armatures. The forms transmitted a gravitas not unlike that of burial stelae or standing stones, and his advisors began referring to them as “totems”—a term then in vogue for its psychological and “primitive” valences. In Native American art, totems are stylized animals that emblematize the people who adopt them and thereby assume the animal’s legendary achievements, traits, or protective powers. Mellick’s inherent approach to spatial design, and his use of stylized natural forms with surface patterning or in-filled shapes, obviously paralleled the aesthetic sensibilities of northwestern Native American art. For a time, he enjoyed a sort of mystical connection to two worlds and times, participating in an ancient historical continuum while innovating a contemporary expression in art. It was a great start.
His first dog sculpture, designed for a statewide competition in Ohio and completed in 1985, featured a tower of seven stacking dogs that gradually decreased in size from the huge Irish wolfhound at the base to a snappy Chihuahua crowning the top, about twelve feet off the ground. Given to an inveterate love of punning, he’d incessantly riff on the piece as an example of the trickle-down theory of economics, or the case of the top dog, and so on. Over time, dozens of dogs came to stand in as semaphores of the artist’s concerns about oil spills, AIDS, midlife crisis, human depravity, children at risk, and more.
Mellick is not a melodramatic type, and he’s no stranger to controversy, but he’s often amazed, if not delighted, by the drama his allegories elicit. Get Out of Here! (1995) presents a row of dog butts frantically fleeing through a wall, leading one to wonder whether it constitutes Mellick’s veiled directive to self-aggrandizing art critics [see Plate 2]. This array of anatomically correct canines, hung at eye level, induced at least one gallery director to consider removing it from an exhibit. But that gallery’s functionaries soon forgot about Get Out of Here! when confronted by the full nudity of Diana Deconstructed (1996), which trumped concerns about the kind of anatomy that our own household pets brandish every day.
Whitened Sepulcher (2010), a bust portraying a puffed up, expressionless bishop with empty eye sockets and dollar signs on his miter and cope, pointed up Mellick’s impatience with clerics who press double standards on their flocks while behaving badly. Shortly after a Nazarene university gallery censored this piece because it was considered disrespectful, a Wesleyan gallery selected it as the main image on the announcements for Mellick’s exhibit. But then, the Wesleyan administration stymied Mellick by requesting the removal of just one piece out of an installation called Arsenal, because a janitor in the gallery felt affronted by a handle that seemed a little too phallic.
Mellick accepts such reactions philosophically, and sometimes they affirm his sense that he has hit the target squarely between the eyes. As a pastor’s kid and a lifelong Midwesterner, Mellick projects a self-effacing demeanor animated by a wry, sometimes naughty sense of humor that targets his own foibles as much as anyone else’s. His allegorical studies ask why, and privately he directs this inquiry to God, more in the manner of a testy but obedient Old Testament prophet than a self-righteous Fox News pundit. His three-dimensional questions are meant to highlight absurdities and failures of reason, and he always seems a little stunned when others don’t notice the same disconnects. So while his propositions may sometimes offend a viewer’s sense of propriety, he never uses art as a billboard for moralizing diatribes or proscriptive missives. Mellick’s inquiries are personal and rabbinical or Socratic in spirit; they mean to provoke dialogue, and they never stop questioning because they are never totally satisfied.
Which is why Mellick ultimately feels affirmed when a work like Patton’s Willie (1986) stirs up a little brouhaha. The piece grew out of Mellick’s delight over the well-known fact that General George Patton’s bull terrier was a notorious coward—the kind who shivered under the bed at the drop of a hat. Mellick’s Willie stands rigid, paralyzed with fear, finding no comfort in the pearl-handled Colt revolvers strapped around his middle—an allusion to Patton’s accessorizing finesse. Despite his army regalia and his close association with one of the world’s greatest warriors, Willie remains afflicted with a permanent case of the willies, just like the shell-shocked and sniveling soldier who Patton infamously slapped in 1943 at an evac hospital. Patton’s daughter, Ruth Ellen Patton Totten, took issue with Mellick’s rendition of her father’s bull terrier as inaccurate in “every way, shape or form,” as she wrote in an indignant letter. This didn’t ruffle Mellick at all, since his animal sculptures are never meant to be faithful likenesses, just recognizable as specific breeds. Totten went on to chide Mellick for wasting his talent on a “ridiculous” and “altogether obscene” product that not only degraded her father’s memory, as she put it, but the dog and the entire breed’s reputation. For the artist, the main obscenity on view was the folly and absurdity of war, often puffed up by the posturing rhetoric and props of those who wage it. Nevertheless, Mellick courteously renamed this one The General’s Willie to assuage Patton’s daughter, and still relishes the way the anecdote has augmented the artwork.
You get the sense that Mellick truly savors the cascade of incidents that his works elicit once they’re set free from the studio. For instance, he recently received a text from Mitt Romney, which compelled him to call around and see which of his friends was playing a practical joke. The real Romney confirmed his identity, explaining that he had bought one of Mellick’s “ghost dogs” in New York in the 1990s and was looking for another one. It seems that the Romneys once owned a much beloved Weimeraner, the same breed that Mellick particularly cherishes (not to be confused with the rambunctious Irish setter that Mitt supposedly strapped to the roof of the family car in a crate during a vacation). The Weimaraner’s virtually iridescent, glossy coat and breathtaking speed have earned the breed the nickname “gray ghost,” which inspired Mellick’s series of “ghost dogs.” Playing on the German word Geist, which translates as “ghost” as well as “spirit,” the two-part figures always appear to be lunging through walls like unstoppable otherworldly messengers.
As you can imagine, Mellick inevitably gets asked, “Why dogs?” His study of totems led him to the conclusion that the most authentic totem for modern western humans had to be the dog. Dogs were the first creatures we domesticated, and they maintained their legacy throughout history as the most faithful of companions—the Fido (Latin for “I am faithful”) often seen snoozing at the feet of marble burial effigies in medieval cathedrals. Mellick, who knows the foibles of dogs intimately, considers them a constant model of our “fallenness,” in the Genesis sense. For him, the “dog in the wrong” personifies a sinner, slinking around, dripping with self-loathing when it knows it has transgressed, hoping its master will forget the raddled carpet or pee-stained couch, the accidental or unthinking nip, the roll in stinky dead frog, the harried escape from the leash. Seconds later, the same dog positively erupts with joy and ecstasy when all seems right, when the daily bread appears, when everyone is settled back into their posts at home. Mellick’s hounds are Everyman-dogs: they always represent an idea beyond an actual likeness. He also calls them Trojan dogs, because an ambush of meaning waits behind the friendly façade.
After “Why dogs?” Mellick is often asked by well-meaning observers with a practical bent whether he ever considers making dog furniture, which would, after all, give him far more lucrative gallery sales. This question occasioned a series of “dog tricks” tables, featuring obedient hounds in full handstands, wearing longsuffering looks of weary obedience as they balance tabletops on their hind feet and hocks.
Actually, Mellick moved beyond the dogs as early as 1987 with Peace Burden, a response to the violence and upheaval in Latin America during the 1980s. The dignified and circumspect South American llama suggested itself as an unprotesting and gentle pack animal that would be willing to heft the heaviest of loads—peace—through civil chaos. Of course, as Mellick knows from firsthand experience, llamas can also spit, kick, and puke when they develop a disliking for a handler or feel compelled to protect themselves and their herd. Doves roosting in alcoves inserted into the llama’s body telegraph their varied responses of activism, ignorance, or passivity, as a threatening lizard creeps up the llama’s flank. Peace Burden was selected as the poster icon for a significant national exhibit, American Contemporary Works in Wood—a sign of the broad respect that Mellick’s work engendered in the craft arena.
The next year, as artist-in-residence at a pre-fab building firm, Mellick created another beast of burden designed to commemorate Cincinnati’s past as America’s beer capital. In an amazing feat of engineering, Mellick constructed a life-sized Belgian draft horse vaulting through the air. Meticulously splinted light and dark wedges of cedar simulated powerful muscles, sinews, and movement. Originally designed to hang as a mobile sculpture for an upscale hotel on Cincinnati’s riverfront, Blue Collar Pegasus (1988) splashes through a blue framework that simultaneously represents the waters of the Ohio River, the city’s urban grid, the confining harness of the “blue collar,” and an absurdly useless set of wings. In a wider sense, Mellick wanted this hopeful-looking, hardworking Pegasus to memorialize all laborers who aspire to something greater, who work hard but can’t get off the ground. Streaming fetlocks suggest motion, but no liftoff. A peanut gallery of flapping doves perched on shelves in the horse’s neck suggests a twittering community that, despite good intentions, cannot aid the hefty steed’s dream of flight. After an economic crash sidelined the city’s riverside restoration campaign, and the hotel project was cancelled, the piece ended up in an equine-themed collection in Augusta, Georgia—completely divorced from the brewery associations and geographical context that inspired it. Mellick takes this displacement in stride, appreciative of the fact that Pegasus’s wanderings between owners have quadrupled its appraisal price since 1988.
Since every piece Mellick makes can be experienced simply as a beautiful work of woodcraft, one can easily overlook darker shades of meaning that animate some of his allegories. The Politically Incorrect Dog (1992) signaled Mellick’s sinking realization that despite his proven skills and accrued wisdom in the field, as a middle-aged white male he had become undesirable within academic hiring paradigms—a dog in the wrong, in fact. PID’s muzzled and befuddled Great Dane looks to the right with a wary, slightly apologetic look, but instinctively lifts his leg to the left, marking whatever pitiable scrap of territory remains to him [see Plate 3]. The target area includes a reproduction of an actual College Art Association ad from 1991, studded with the particular clause that aroused Mellick’s pique: “Women and ethnic minorities are particularly encouraged to apply.”
Mellick’s prickly vignette about the inspiration for the piece, excerpted from a 1992 exhibit catalog, hardly conceals the personal anger within its allegorical center. “People who know dogs say that if you don’t punish a dog within twenty-eight seconds of his indiscretion, he will not know why he is being reprimanded. Some in the minority feel that Caucasian males should be punished for the sins that their fathers may or may not have committed, ten, fifty, one hundred and two hundred years ago.” The “pale-complexioned” Dane, described in Mellick’s curatorial text as well-bred, gentle, compassionate, and raised in a good Christian home, “never expected to be bitten by those he intended to help.” The animal’s flanks display symbols of its undesirable “brands,” including fish-shaped ichthyses and a Star of David that broadcast Mellick’s Judeo-Christian faith—the mere hint of which made mainstream institutions of higher education turn up their noses. He felt branded as completely incorrect for the first time in his life, and could not accept the role of “oppressor” that race and gender discourses attached to him by default.
Frankly, no one wanted to hear his plaint. Obviously, no assiduously PC academic in the secular sphere would give him an audience. He was particularly stymied, however, by Christian acquaintances who advised him to tuck away his indignation. Even the barest whimper or whine was socially and ethically unacceptable. There he was again, chained up in the back yard, forlornly yawping at the moon and annoying the neighbors.
“What really ticked me off about the CAA ad,” Mellick recently wrote, “was that I dumbly believed in the fairness of the [application] process, and put so much time into my applications, only to find out that the school threw out the first round of applicants and started the search over because they did not get the ‘kind’ of applicants they wanted first time around. That’s where the ‘particularly encouraged to apply’ reaction came from.”
“It made me so vulnerable,” Mellick recalled. “I always felt I’d accomplished a lot, but that I’m also the best kept secret—like a secret that’s between God and me; like, we know what I’ve accomplished. I mean, I’m not going overboard with pride, but false humility isn’t the answer either.”
Mellick’s own background was far from privileged, and he had been brought up to take nothing for granted. His dad supported a family of five boys in rural Ohio on a fifty-dollar-a-week salary as a minister, supplemented by elementary school teaching. His mother taught herself to make the family furniture from scratch. Four Mellick boys not only managed to attain the first college degrees in the family lineage, but also received advanced degrees in philosophy, neurology, art, and medicine. Though the Mellicks had little, their habit of charity and hospitality taught the boys to share as much as they could with folks in need—a generous impulse that continues with Mellick’s annual contribution of several thousand pounds of homegrown vegetables each year to a local food pantry for the hungry.
Despite his healthy roster of achievements, Mellick’s mounting sense of vulnerability about his employability forced him to reconsider where he should invest his efforts by the mid-1990s. He had always followed national craft journals and woodworking magazines, where his art often received enthusiastic responses, but he was wary about being pigeonholed as a craft artist. He began seeking connections with accomplished woodworkers, wood sculptors, and narrative ceramicists whose work he respected, partly because they had pioneered the craft-versus-art divide, and partly because he considered their skills superior to his own and wanted to swap tricks with them. These included the Ohio storyteller Jack Earl, Prix de Rome–winners Michael Cooper and Rob Strini, Arizona’s Tom Eckert, and Canadian mixed-media artist Gerard Pas, whose experience with polio inspired an entire aesthetic vocabulary based on the icons of the crutch and wheelchair.
Eventually, encouraged by a new cohort of mentors and colleagues, he was asked to show in high-end exhibits at Lincoln Center’s Cork Gallery and the American Craftsman Gallery in New York City (where Mitt bought his mutt, in fact). He became involved with the international Sculptural Objects and Functional Art group based in Chicago, and was invited to teach at the prestigious Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. He struck up enduring relationships with artists like Craig Nutt, whose whimsical, brightly lacquered radish furniture and “vegetalia” in wood have ended up in the nation’s best craft collections, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. Houghton College’s Gary Baxter, who trained at the highly esteemed Rochester Institute of Technology and Alfred University, compared Mellick’s fluid compositional lines and meticulous handling of wood-grain patterns and joinery with one of the nation’s most recognized late-twentieth-century wood furniture designers, Sam Maloof.
Like Maloof’s, Mellick’s interaction with wood began coincidentally; both needed cheap furniture as newlyweds, and Mellick also needed stretchers for his wavy, vertical totem paintings in grad school. The redwood ribs he fashioned pushed the canvas in and out, conveying a sense of strained tension and making shadows ripple over the entire composition, as if it were breathing. Mellick equates these wooden armatures with the boards that propped up shallow movie sets from old westerns and back-lot productions. From one angle the ribs reinforce the flawless silhouette of a living being; from another, they suggest vulnerability, stripping, or exposure. In the case of the hollow cleric of Whitened Sepulcher, the barely concealed framework suggests a lack of substance, if not a vacated soul.
While Mellick’s reference to shallow façades is intentional, it is not self-deprecating. It reveals his conviction that art can never escape its ethereal existence as an illusion, propped up by technique or materials, and his appreciation of the radical difference between the creator who is human and the creator who is God. All representational art pales in comparison to the real thing, he concludes, so why pretend that mere humans can imitate God’s perfect reality? It could be said that this attitude preserves him from a great deal of posturing and self-importance, but Mellick’s perfectionism drives him to work long hours to achieve the smooth, glowing finishes, precise joinery, and intricate inlays that make each composition so satisfying to the viewer.
He describes his constant challenge as the process of “wringing the glory” out of each piece of wood. “I’m a solid teacher in other media,” he admits, “and every once in a while I’ll do bronze and stone, but wood is my poison, my habit, my addiction. It breathes; it was once a living substance; with the right touch, it breathes again. It’s vulnerable, too; it can crack, or split, or surprise you with a hidden flaw.” Wood and Mellick share a mutual empathy.
Although the rich, lustrous surfaces of his works suggest exotic timbers, he generally prefers American hardwoods like poplar, walnut, ash, maple, and birch. Very early on, Mellick perfected his habit of scrounging serviceable materials, salvaging redwood trim from houses under demolition, or stripping copper from old plumbing and electrical wiring. He still harvests whatever is suffering from the latest insect infestation; currently, thanks to the predations of ash bores, he’s added ash to his wood locker. Years ago, he heard about an unstable cherry tree with a trunk three feet thick, a width that suggested an ancient specimen—one that may have witnessed the region’s native tribes and pioneers. Now it had simply become a threat to nearby buildings. He and a neighboring artist hauled, sawed, and dried the wood in a kiln, which ended up costing a mere seventy cents per board foot, far less than the going commercial rate of six dollars. It is a priceless and irreplaceable gift of nature that continues to enrich the look of many of his works. Having shared a lengthy dialogue, Mellick and the cherry stock know each other well.
When he feels creatively pinioned by the intensive effort that figures and narratives require, Mellick reverts to play, designing abstractions that he calls dream objects. “I think of dream objects as ‘Why not?’ rather than ‘Why?’ sculptures. They’re relatively smaller and more minimal by my standards, they’re not as time-consuming, and my aging muscles can shuttle them around better.” Most of them indulge Mellick’s love of surrealism, pun, linguistic trickery, and recreational nonsense. The gleefully prancing Sigmoid (2008) might remind you of a dancing Disney clock or teapot, but it was in fact inspired by the artist’s first encounter with a colonoscopy. The liveliness of Sprout (2008) comes straight out of Mellick’s garden [see Plate 4], as do Zucchini King and the Summer Squash Totem (2007), both of which pay homage to a Weimaraner with a self-motivated passion for retrieving Mellick’s vegetables. Spira (2012) is a wonderfully animated study of contrasting bits and bobs in leather, copper, and ebonized, bleached or lacquered woods that exude ecstatic, childlike energy, much in the spirit of Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine or Jean Tinguely’s uninhibited kinetic sculptures.
Arsenal (1987), the installation censored for its contestably phallic handle, began as an experiment with abstracted, evolving forms, but ultimately provided an outlet for Mellick’s discouragement about the endless rhetoric concerning the nuclear arms race, which dominated the news in the 1980s. Vaguely menacing blades, pikes, and paddles face off in a circle. Each appears poised to strike, but sits dumbly in its stand, suspended like a bizarre artifact in an ethnographic exhibit. For Mellick, this impasse characterized the irrational logic of the Cold War. On the other hand, the inherently attractive forms and shapes, coated in luscious, glowing colors, reveal Mellick’s appreciation for the deadly allure of weaponry. Think of all the clacking tools of trade wielded in the Matrix, Underworld, and Ironman franchises. Arsenal conveys the artist’s disdain for the locker-room jibe that “mine is bigger than yours,” but also evokes the catastrophic potential of such a joust on the global level. Twenty-five years later, what has changed about this scenario, except some of the players?
As he entered middle age, Mellick began to attempt to carve the nude female figure—to give his libido a boost, he jokes. In fact, he finally felt ready to tackle the challenge. Getting wood to read as skin requires great expertise, because wood lacks the translucent glow of light polished marbles, or the gleam of burnished metal. To animate the muscles and skin of the human body in wood, capturing their softness and suppleness convincingly, Mellick paid closer attention than ever to the direction and patterns of wood grain, and the luster of the surface finish.
He admits that his first freestanding female statues, two angels, ended up with less-than-angelic linebackers’ shoulders and somewhat mannish, frozen faces. The feat of carving ethereal and generic faces, rather than specific portraits—something he had been able to achieve with animals—eluded him for a time. Diana Deconstructed (1996) amounted to nothing less than Mellick’s epitaph for the dismantling of beaux arts classicism and its emphasis on figural realism, so ruthlessly dismissed in the 1970s and 1980s. Though she is the Greek goddess of the hunt, this Diana hunts no more; her faithful dog has fled; her unstrung bow is surrendered to the sky; she lacks arrows; her expression is haunted rather than triumphant.
Eventually, Mellick realized that a headless torso could achieve a more universal sense of presence, like the broken yet breathtaking fragments of classical antiquity. He clearly attained that transcendent, impersonally placid affect with his classically styled torsos Victory on One Wing and Nike of Some-Other-Place (both 1996), adding a contemporary twist both through his playful titles and the swaggering, overemphatic torque of the body, which gives a nod to the Greek innovation of contrapposto [see Plate 5].
Meanwhile, the artist’s own body has been torqued by a quadruple bypass, floaters that interrupt his vision, the various aches and pains of age, and noticeably waning energies, all of which tempt Mellick to take up more portable art forms, like printmaking and drawing, which don’t require as much physical wrangling. His artistic lament for this bodily entropy appears in relatively recent works like Up on Blocks (2007), which features a legless coon hound resting its ‘axles’ on cement blocks—an old jalopy who has become a backcountry lawn ornament [see Plate 6]. As his accompanying text explains, this character from Hazzard County, Virginia, left the dangers of the moonshine business to race dirt buggies. Mellick’s storytelling, however, reveals his own vulnerabilities: “When you get old, racing becomes more dangerous…so he decided to hang up the wheels and retire. Now he just sits in the backyard with his mind running in circles.”
But Mellick himself is far from the blinkered old coot in Up on Blocks, and if his thoughts run in circles, they are usually productive ones. His artistic vision won’t leave him alone. “If I’ve abandoned an idea in the ‘waiting room,’ and it is significant, it will absolutely pound on my studio door until I give it expression and set it free. An inspiration that is not as significant might fade away or die, if left unattended. I really don’t mind this. It usually tells me that the idea was not good enough to find its way out. In a way, attuning to positive insights turns into a form of speaking the truth through my works, which in turn sets me free.”
Mellick still feels most free when he is near his work. He cherishes the solitude and escape provided by labors in his studio, and feels his blood pressure and heart rate noticeably settle down as soon as he enters the space. “I could putter around all day in there and not accomplish anything—just in time for dinner. Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely love being needed by my students.” And in fact, he remains dedicated to passing on what he has learned, so much so that he drives a hundred-mile round trip several times a week to teach at Cedarville University.
But in his own sacred studio space, Mellick has nurtured a degree of insight and emotional awareness that he considers both a blessing and a curse. It feels like a curse when he allows himself to be too sensitive, which pushes him towards cynicism and even despair. But when he is positively charged, the act of making is always cathartic.
Recently, Mellick’s horse sculptures have culminated in a series of otherworldly, life-sized equine busts. The veracity of detail of Poseidon’s Phantom (2013)—the delicate veining on the muzzle, the softened edges of the flared nostrils, and the playful anemone-like tentacles of the mane—contrasts with the implacable, depthless gaze of the copper eyes, which emit an emotionally static air that epitomizes classical sculpture [see front cover]. Laborious rounds of staining and bleaching resulted in the dramatic contrast between Phantom’s deeply ebonized poplar neck and stark white head, which conveys a skull-like impression. Poseidon was known for taming horses, a strange hobby for a sea god. It might not be a stretch to interpret these “sea-horses” as bridging entities, between water and earth for example. Perhaps Phantom reveals Mellick’s consideration of his own between-ness, as an artist who floats between realistic classicism and abstraction, and between formal art and woodcraft.
So now, having heard this artist’s plight, where would you place him on the craft vs. art continuum?
Do flawless, painstakingly applied woodworking techniques make James Mellick a craftsman, working in the terminologically suspect category of low art? Or do his representational forms class him as a figural sculptor of the somewhat debunked fine art school? Do his homey anecdotes and reflections make him some kind of folk artist, despite his erudition? Or do the allegories and statements embedded in his menagerie reveal a 3D bard of the late-twentieth century? Then again, do mysterious abstract dream forms like Spira and Sigmoid push him over the threshold into that mishmash of styles we can only define, in broad strokes, as “contemporary art” or “material culture”?
The correct answer is yes.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.