Step Inside the Arena: A Mel Chin Retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art

The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) is currently exhibiting a retrospective on Mel Chin, taking an approach that highlights the ability of museums to shape experiences that bring complex work, and the approaches that underlie this work, to broad audiences. In the exhibition’s press release, the museum explains that Mel Chin: Rematch (the title of which refers to the artist’s own continual process of self re-evaluation) is “designed to reflect Chin’s artistic methodology and conceptual approach, stressing the collaborative and viral nature of many of his endeavors.” Chin is a conceptual artist who has influenced a generation of artists and curators who infuse their work with political awareness, and his works span diverse media, such as sculpture, video, drawing, painting, land art, and performance art.  The exhibition includes approximately 70 works, which range from drawings to documentation of collective interventions and public works.

Safehouse, 2008-2010, via melchin.org. Safehouse, 2008-2010, via melchin.org.

Unlike most retrospectives, which are arranged in chronological order, this exhibition is organized around “thematic strands” that highlight Chin’s incredible diversity of approaches, in terms of both form and subject matter. Chin has previously had solo exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1989), the Walker Art Center (1990), The Menil Collection (1991) and the Station Museum, Houston (2006), but this exhibition at NOMA is the first to incorporate works with such chronological breadth and to place these works within the context of his wide-ranging career as a whole. While museums sometimes risk repetition or the limitations of specific narratives when holding retrospectives for prominent artists, NOMA has capitalized on the agile, diverse nature of Chin’s work to create an exhibition that not only highlights the artist’s many projects, but conveys a sense of the methodologies, processes, and commitments that have characterized Chin’s career. This approach is highly relevant as museums navigate their relationships with contemporary artists and their roles within a dynamic, constantly changing art world; in exhibitions like this one, museums become ideal spaces in which to show process, rather than just products.

Degrees of Paradise, 1991, via melchin.org. Degrees of Paradise, 1991, via melchin.org.

Chin's major installation works, such as Operation of the Sun through the Cult of the Hand (1987), Landscape (1990), and Degrees of Paradise (1992) are shown, as the exhibit floorplan is largely dictated by these room-sized installations. The exhibition illustrates NOMA’s goal of highlighting innovative contemporary artists who have demonstrated a commitment to New Orleans, as Chin's Operation Paydirt project is dedicated to addressing the issue of childhood lead poisoning in New Orleans and beyond. In 2008, Chin's research in New Orleans created an interdisciplinary project that has generated thousands of schoolchildren’s drawings, in an effort to raise funding and support for the development of effective methods of remediation of lead-contaminated soil throughout the city of New Orleans. This project has led to results on multiple levels, including Chin’s successful collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency in testing new lead remediation methods in Oakland, California, and a 2011 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for scientists to test soil remediation methods in New Orleans. It is precisely this multi-faceted, highly aware approach to art that the exhibition aims to convey in its presentation of Chin’s oeuvre. The connection with New Orleans adds a place-based layer of resonance, heightening the viewer’s connection to the work and illustrating the role of the museum in both the art ecosystem and its local community. In this way, the museum becomes a dynamic space, one of connection, learning, and engagement with the complexity both of Chin’s art and of the issues it tackles.

Revival Field, 1991-ongoing, via melchin.org. Revival Field, 1991-ongoing, via melchin.org.

Although Chin's works deal with heavily charged subject matter, such as hate crimes, climate change, and war, his execution is not explicit. NOMA's contemporary art curator, Miranda Lash, feels that Chin's works take a lot of looking and some explanation to get all the layers and resonances, and she hopes that the public will take the time to look and think carefully about the complexity of the works and the issues involved. In its focus on thematic strands with deep links to human experience, the exhibition encourages this kind of reflection and consideration of Chin’s work, and of the role of art more broadly.

Mel Chin: Rematch opened February 21, 2014 and is on view until May 25, 2014.