Always More Than He Appears: The Art of Mel Chin

By Hannah Caddell

“I’m a recovering conceptual artist,” Mel Chin deadpans when asked about his identity, then letting a smile sneak onto his face. 

Mel Chin is not just any conceptual artist. Both he and his work are always more than they appear, and it’s difficult to make labels stick to the man. One label that has stuck? Guggenheim Fellow – an honor recently bestowed upon Chin by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for his exceptional work.

The Guggenheim Fellowship application is an arduous process, requiring a meticulously curated compilation of recent work. Chin was a Knight Artist-in-Residence at McColl Center in 2012 and 2013. The works he created by the light of the Carolina sunsets streaming in through the Center’s arches found their way into his application. 

Though Chin himself says he prefers “not to look back, [but] to be competitive with my former efforts, [to] supersede previous conceptions,” it is crucial to us, as artistic viewers, to look at the work that he created that led to his naming of Guggenheim Fellow.  

More Than Just A Dollar

During Chin’s time at McColl Center, a long desk in the gallery invited visitors to stop, sit, and touch – a rarity at any art institution. 

Any interactive opportunity for visitors to feel or create within a contemporary art gallery builds buzz, since oftentimes art is meant only for looking, not for touching. By crafting an installation piece that required tactility – and even creating – on the part of visitors, Chin went beyond the scope of merely the visual. 

Visitors were encouraged to create their own version of the Fundred Dollar bill using markers and colored pencils. I even once saw gum used in a most creative way: to cast a silhouette in the oval where Benjamin Franklin is usually pictured. 

This visitor engagement was part of Chin’s larger installation and performance piece Operation Paydirt. But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of its appearance, the piece doesn’t exist without the Fundred Dollar bills created by the public. 

Beginning with the observation that the levels of lead were too high in the water in New Orleans, the installation and performance piece now travels the country.  The newly created Fundred bills are presented to state legislators to encourage stronger legislation limiting lead toxicity levels in drinking water. 

Appearance is Relative

Chin created a series of portraits while at McColl Center that gave new lives to seemingly unused items, “Unauthorized Collaborations: Discarded Portraits.” 

Portraits are never solely what is presented to the viewer. The sitter will have wanted to convey a particular aspect of themselves, while the painter walks a fine line between depicting the absolute aesthetic truth and satisfying the wishes of how the sitter wants to appear.

Chin found portraits that had been “removed from their families” – many from the beloved Charlotte antique hub Sleepy Poet – and, as Chin stated in his McColl Center Open Door Interview, “through alteration or a surgical process, [I] gave them another life through contemporary art.” 

One portrait featured a stoic woman dressed in black. Her crisp onyx dress is laced up to her neck, while a white bonnet constricts her hair and, in a metaphorical sense, her freedom. 

To enhance the piece, Chin dissected a hand from a different portrait, that of a man, and delicately applied the hand over the lower half of the woman’s face. This literally quiets the woman, as her attire and stature suggest, by adding a physical restriction over her mouth.

Another portrait with an entirely different countenance featured a smiling woman in a 1950s silhouette coral dress, her short gray hair softly curled back away from her face, hands crossed over one another in her lap. She is smiling, looking directly at the viewer, while she conveys both confidence and, in Chin’s words, “control over her environment.” 

Instead of applying pieces from another portrait on top of her, Chin decided to peel away a portion of the canvas’ background for her hand to “hold.” In this way, she still maintains the authority that her visage proudly dictates. 

To Supersede Previous Conceptions

While great art is always more than it seems, with the work of Mel Chin, it can be difficult to understand the greatness without hearing the artist himself explain the work and its many visual and philosophical layers. 

Chin will be using his Guggenheim Fellowship to focus on work he has begun in West Africa. Being named a Guggenheim Fellow means that this project can be completed. For large international projects in particular, “the horizon gets further away if you don’t have support,” admits Chin.

Chin’s work consistently surprises. He is ever evolving; you never know what will next inspire him and his endeavors. What is always there, underneath the work, is a desire, which Chin says, “get[s] me closer to how I can be part of efforts that can expand the aesthetics of our existence.”

The Guggenheim Fellowship is designed for scholars, artists, and scientists who have already shown they are exceptionally talented and who also demonstrate that their work has potential to continue to meaningfully impact others. At most, five percent of applicants are chosen for the elite award, which includes funding and a block of time in which Fellows can work “with as much creative freedom as possible.” Previous artistic Guggenheim Fellows include Alvin Ailey, E. E. Cummings, John Cage, and Ansel Adams.

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Watch Mel Chin’s Open Door Interview from his Knight Foundation art residency at McColl Center for Art + Innovation in 2012/2013.