Painter Mel Reese’s work is built on a visual lexicon of abstract forms that simplify her own understanding of the world’s complexities. More interested in subtleties, the reflection of nature, and how layers inform textures of shapes and color, Reese makes art for people who find the magnification of realism too harsh and for those who revel in the quiet beauties.
Reese’s work is part of the group show “Leaving the Body,” curated by Morgan Everhart and also featuring Natasha Wright, Poppy DeltaDawn, Alyssa McClenaghan. The exhibition is on view at The Yard City Hall Park in New York City through November 5, 2021.
We spoke with Mel Reese about the joys and difficulties of dedicating one’s life to the arts, who she is creating for, and why artwork doesn’t need to be socially or politically relevant.
How does your artwork relate to your identity?
Well, this may sound like a cliché, but as a full-time artist, my art is who I am. I’ve dedicated my life to my artwork, and that seeps into every creation I make. The elation, the pressure, the passion, the struggle, the enjoyment, the frustration, the love—it all plays a role; it’s all in the art.
Why do you dedicate your life to art? What are some examples of things or people that bring you elation, the pressure, the passion, the struggle, the enjoyment, the frustration, the love you mention?
That is to say that I dedicate my life to art simply because I couldn’t imagine my life without art in it—and once it’s a part of your life, it just takes over. When dedicating your life to your art comes both the joy and the difficulty, but more often than not, it’s the joy, and that is worth everything in the world. Everyone endures struggles, pressures, and frustration, but as an artist, I get to enjoy pure elation and revel in the passions that few others are blessed with experiencing. I believe it is that full range of emotions that makes me so in tune with myself, my body.
My physical body plays a significant role in my personal identity. For the work in “Leaving the Body,” this manifests as a focus on the shapes of my body and its interaction with my surrounding environment.
What characteristics of the human form do you incorporate into your artwork? What characteristics of the human form do you consciously refrain from depicting in your art?
Specific to the work in “Leaving the Body,” I have paintings from two separate bodies of work. One is aptly named “Body Abstractions,” whose paintings are abstracted renderings of my body. As I mentioned earlier, my physical body plays a significant role in defining my personal identity—it is the vessel of my existence. By zooming in on specific parts of my body, I am examining beyond the elbows’ specific purpose to explore the shapes and textures the elbow creates in movement or pressed up against another surface or, even perhaps, another body part. By doing this, I am abstracting that body part’s purpose; I am exploring my body as form rather than as a being.
The other series, “Out East,” takes this same concept of abstraction of form but applies it to the exploration of nature. Using this same approach to nature allows me to understand my body’s existence within nature as just another organic body to study and explore. Like my approach to exploring the body, I examine nature by parsing it down into a lexicon of shapes, colors, and textures; only this time, I build those elements back up in careful, distinct layers to create a cohesive, readable landscape.
Who do you make your art for and why?
I make my art for anyone who finds the magnification of realism too harsh. I make for those who are more interested in the subtleties of our world; for those who revel in the quiet beauties. For those who appreciate the six different colors that make up their shadows. For those who appreciate the textures of the eroding sidewalk. For those who take solace in the softness of the bushy treetops against the sky or the delicate layered petals of a flower.
These subtleties, for me, provide a moment of reprieve, a moment for my body to take a breath and connect with the beauty around me. My artwork celebrates these moments and is a calling card for anyone who does as well.
What are your artworks recontextualizing or exposing?
My artworks recontextualize the seen and experienced world. I am breaking down the lived, the observed, the witnessed experiences into abstracted forms as a way of building a visual lexicon for the world around us. If I break down the complexity of the observed into basic forms, I can then understand it in a more intimate way. Through this new relationship, I am then able to rebuild these forms through my own understanding and recontextualize the complexity of the observed into my own unique language of appreciation via layered sheets of color and form.
Could you tell us more about the personal explorations and realizations you’ve made with ‘Icy Pond” specifically?
For example, with my piece “Icy Pond,” I was completely overtaken by the quiet beauty of a semi-frozen brackish pond I would visit every day in January while living in Springs, East Hampton. Held within that delicate space between the frozen fresh water and the intruding saltwater from the sea, I was intrigued by my desire to portray this delicate, beautiful, quiet, tension-filled scene.
Those moments within the painting, where the warmth of the brown breaks through the sheets of the two battling cool greys, we settle in, we feel the eager excitement to enter into the painting, into my memory, my experience. The moments when the two greys overlap or, perhaps, lightly kiss, we are encompassed by the coolness of the piece. It emphasizes the feeling that brown not only warms us, but is a reminder of the life that still thrives below, hibernating and waiting for the right moment to thrive again.
Living a secluded life out in the deep backwoods of Long Island in the dead of winter, this was a mindset I found myself experiencing on a daily basis. Life is a cycle, and as barren as it may feel sometimes, the ability to flourish and grow is always there.
What is some advice that you would like to share with other artists?
I guess my biggest point of reflection is that the art you make should be about what interests you, what excites you, what matters to you, and people will respond to it. They may not recognize your work immediately, they may not be able to appreciate what you are making until it is explained to them, but in the end, if you are passionate about what you create, then others will be too. It doesn’t need to be groundbreaking; it doesn’t need to be socially or politically relevant—all it should be is an extension of yourself, in whatever form that may be. Share who you are through your art and your process—we are interested!
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or events?
I recently participated in the SPRING/BREAK Art Show as an Independent Curator. I did not include any of my own work but rather represented the wonderful work of a fellow artist and friend, Kathy Sirico. The fair is now closed, and the art world has moved on to Basel, but you can still find information about my curation “Fractured Truths” and see (and buy) Kathy’s stunning work here.
“Leaving the Body,” featuring Natasha Wright, Poppy DeltaDawn, Alyssa McClenaghan, Mel Reese, and curated by Morgan Everhart, is on view at The Yard City Hall Park, 116 Nassau Street, Floors 5 & 6 New York, NY 10038, through November 5, 2021, with a reception on Thursday, September 23, 6–9 pm. For more information about this exhibition and its reception, please visit morganeverhart.com/leavingthebody. For artwork inquiries and appointments, contact email@example.com.
“At the basis of Body Art … one can discover the unsatisfied need for a love that extends itself without limit in time—the need to be loved for what one is and for what one wants to be—the need for a kind of love that confers unlimited rights- the need for what is called primary love.”—Lea Vergine, from ‘The Body as Language.’
Making artwork about the body always involves personal identity. Using the body as a point of view or departure allows an artist and viewer the opportunity to connect the dots between their realities and emotions. Many artists, when referencing the body, are in pursuit of depicting tenderness and love for one’s self, which in return brings symbolism to life. However, depending on the degree of self-representation, there’s often a level of narcissism that comes with it. In this exhibition, “Leaving the Body,” Alyssa McClenaghan, Natasha Wright, Poppy DeltaDawn, and Mel Reese share a range of abstraction that contextualizes their bodily and spiritual connections to their surroundings without focusing on their individual, physical characteristics.
Each artist implies the body through varying degrees of abstraction related to their surroundings or medium. Alyssa McClenaghan explores the relationship between materials and gender through personifying domestic objects. Poppy DeltaDawn explores the transitions from body to material through textile production and how it relates to her own medical transition. Natasha Wright’s work explores the sociopolitical implications of the female body as an icon. Mel Reese questions subjectivity through embodying her surroundings.
What someone considers representative, or a recognizable element of resemblance, is culturally conditioned. Our pictorial traditions influence our perception of nature. That being said, there’s an immense vulnerability in challenging resemblance, especially of the corporeal self. “Leaving the Body” reminds us that the body is a construct.