Thursday, April 19, 2007

Art Space Talk: Melanie Willhide

I recently interviewed artist Melanie Willhide. Melanie was born in Manchester, Connecticut in 1975. She received her undergraduate degree from Rhode Island School of Design in 1999 and earned her MFA from Yale School of Art in 2002.

After working in New York as a Production Manager for artist/photographer Gregory Crewdson, Melanie moved, in 2004, to Los Angeles, where she currently works as an Assistant Professor of Photography at Cal State Fullerton.

Melanie had her first solo exhibition at the AOV Gallery, in San Francisco. Since then she has been exhibited in Boston at the Bernard Toale Gallery, in San Francisco at SF Camerawork, and in New York City at Wallspace Gallery. She is in the collection at Yale University’s Davenport College and The Paul and Barbara Kaben Collection in Boston, Massachusetts.

Melanie was nominated by Philip Lorca DiCorcia for V Magazine’s Exposure 14 photographers to watch. Her work has been published in PDN, SF Camerawork, Details Magazine, Photo Metro, American Photography and The Boston Globe.

Q. Melanie, your photographs are known for capturing raw emotion- the series, Augmented Sixth, comes to mind. These photos seem to tell a story, but it is left up to the viewer to 'construct' said story based upon his or her own perception. What was your goal when creating this series?

A. "I was interested in making something that was baffling and unnerving in how familiar it was, but still elusive. Life rushes by at such a rate that when the most fundamental parts are identified they are already in the process of being erased."

Q. You recently had a solo exhibit titled- "Sleeping Beauties (The Box > Under the Bed)"- at Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT. Can you tell us about the exhibit?

A. "This exhibit was of particular importance to me on a personal level. I grew up not far from this space. It along with the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford Ballet Company and a small punk club called Studio 158 offered me a sense of how much bigger the world could be. It was nice to be able to give back in some small way by exhibiting there."

Q. You studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and Yale Univerisity School of Art. How did working in these two art departments shape you as an artist? Can you tell us about the departments? Who did you study under?

A. " At RISD Ann Fessler and Deborah Bright. At Yale P.L. Dicorcia, Gregory Crewdson and Cathy Opie. In undergraduate I learned to ignore my body and work from my mind. At Yale I learned how not to be in the world. Both departments are strong but for almost opposite reasons. RISD: Girls teaching girls. Yale: Boys teaching pretty talented girls. The people I studied with at Yale have become like family. Crewdson did more for me than he will ever be aware of."

Q. You have been a Guest Lecturer at several art schools. What topics do you normally discuss?

A. "The state of photography, as well as economics, MTV, past loves, current obsessions, the war. This depends on the age and the experience of the crowd."

Q. Can you tell us more about your series Sleeping Beauties... and Love Letters. The works in this series are a break-away from the photos you created for Augmented Sixth- yet they strongly capture a sense of loss just as the photos had. When did you decide to go in this direction with your work?

A. "I moved to California and en route I was notified that all of my belongings (including 5 shows) had been burned in an accidental fire over the state line of AZ to CA. When I visited the remains I found the boxes appeared to have been looted and torched to look like a fire. Sifting through the remains I found my most favored dress, an Alessandro Dell'Acqua, fused to a cheap plastic blender. This dreamlike disoreintation of having no things to define oneself got me thinking more, and differently, about abstraction - the space of time between seeing and knowing. The project came shortly after that."

Q. When did you decide to pursue art? In other words, when did you first discover that art would be an important part of your life?

A. "It was not a decision or a discovery - I grew up in a family of people involved with lives of making and invention."

Q. Can you go into further detail about how society has influenced your art? What are the social implications in your work?

A. "We are all being watched. Men are the new women. We make choices about how we live by looking at images. I wish we were not so psychically damaged as a culture - my work imitates, modifies, and attempts to define that damage."

Q. Can you share some of your philosophy about art and artistic creation?

A. "The study and practice of art is imporant. It can change the quality of lives. Money and ego make it messy but very arresting. All of my work capitalizes on two things. The ablity to see our own lives in others. Nothing adds up to the way we think it should."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "Absolute quiet."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "In "Xenia poses for James" (image above) you are confronted with a scene that should be a giddy and thrilling feast for the eyes - but the pairing of fantasy with with a basic bodily function forces you to rethink the often smooth process of objectifying women."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "My website: "

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "I am in a relationship with Bellwether Gallery in NY right now - although not fully represented by them at this point. I am working on one in LA."

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. " Taste is the new talent."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "Now, last week, two years ago, ten years ago. Artists are like ascetics - we take a vow of poverty to reach enlightenment. But it is the definition of enlightenment that is the hardest, most maleable part. If art gets easy there is something wrong."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "Los Angeles is a very interesting place - the galleries here support the college art departments here. Which for me having not been educated here has provided some obstacles - which I find fascinating for such a transient place - that the locals support the locals, and keep a watchful eye of newbies. They are cowboys."

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "A bit. There is a lot Americans have been living with, such as a culture war, the environmental crisis, a system that exploits its citizens and does not protect them - as a result we have been forced to think about how we contribute and what will become of us when we are gone. In my experience anxiety is a durable state capable of much power and more destruction."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "No."

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

A. "And indite myself more? No."
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Melanie Willhide. Feel free to critique or discuss her work.
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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