Melissa Thorne Takes on Blocks and Rocks in "A Wall Around a Window"
'A Wall Around a Window," Melissa Thorne's installation at Devin Borden Gallery, is a strangely lovely take on concrete walls and boarded-up windows. Thorne commandeered the gallery's rear exhibition space, filling it with wall paintings, paintings on canvas and works on paper that are drawn from vernacular architectural ornamentation and improvisation. She took a pristine white gallery wall and painted it to look like multicolored concrete block — green with a purple diamond pattern. The faux concrete block painted on the opposite wall is the color of orange sherbet melting on a sidewalk. This all probably sounds terrible, but the results are wonderful. (The purple-y gray and green pattern was said to be inspired by her grandparents' home in Florida.)
In the past, Thorne has created abstract works from items such as crocheted afghans she found at thrift stores. Her painting carefully duplicated the colors and patterns used by the unknown crafter who created them, flaws and all. If the individual had run out of a color and abruptly began using another, Thorne's painting would do likewise.
In this show, other forms of homespun creativity provide the source material — the decoratively painted concrete block walls she mimicked are complemented by a series of paintings of oddly boarded-up windows. Block walls, the stuff of roadside gas stations and hurricane-proof Florida homes, are almost invariably grim. It's difficult to keep them from looking like a bunker, especially if they're used to construct similarly low-slung structures. But in "A Wall Around a Window," Thorne has homed in on attempts to make them decorative and cheery. In translating these walls to the gallery, Thorne has avoided any kind of exacting trompe l'oeil effects. Her blocks are loosely and translucently painted using watered-down acrylic. They are also something of an art joke, a wonky, exuberantly colored take on the restrained and exacting grids found in minimalist art.
Boarding up or bricking in a window is an aesthetic challenge equal to that of decorating concrete block. Thorne has made paintings that riff on boarded-over windows she saw, according to the gallerist, in upstate New York. (Thorne is currently a visiting assistant professor in Albany.) The paintings are all window-size, though those windows come in various sizes, and she has hung them on the peach-colored "concrete block" wall, where they represent the boarded-up windows of her simulated building.
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All of the window paintings in the exhibit are untitled. One work seems to have various chunks of colored rock filling it in. (It is somewhat similar to an earlier series Thorne did about the fake rock sound-barrier walls built by the California Highway Department.) Thorne's painting style flattens and simplifies forms. Little dots indicate granite; simple brushy lines signal marble. It's an intriguing image, and you wonder how the window it was based on came to be. According to the gallerist, it was the window of a store that had been filled in with chunks of broken countertop. Waste not, want not.
Thorne has worked as Peter Halley's studio assistant, and you can see the ghost of his "cells" in a canvas three-quarters full of orangey-yellow brick with Pepto-Bismol pink mortar. (Again, it sounds terrible, but in reality it's a great color combination.) Thorne uses tape for crisp edges as Halley does, but her painting style is much more relaxed, as is her witty and engaging body of work. The top quarter of the "brick" painting is covered with a loose vertical faux bois. It's as if someone ran out of brick and closed up the remaining space with a weathered sheet of plywood. Here, Thorne has made a visually appealing painting that is also a kind of a salute to half-assed and unintentionally interesting problem-solving. The same thing is going on in another work of patched-together pieces of weathered plywood. They are layered in a casual but compositionally successful manner. Some of the pieces seem to have been colored at one time or another, providing wood grain still stained in yellows, blues and oranges. It's a very cool "found" painting.
There is another subtext to all these paintings: Boarded-up buildings aren't usually a sign of prosperity. Upstate New York is economically depressed, running neck and neck with beleaguered Michigan. Thorne's paintings are evidence of that hardship and the people who endure it. What is it like to board up a building in which you once lived or worked?
Thorne has a great eye, as well as a loving appreciation, for the homemade. She also obviously loves kitsch. The wall of purple and green based on an actual wall in her grandparent's home is hung with bright little watercolors of objects from her grandparents' house. A rooster figurine, a bit of macramé and a zebra-head planter are affectionately rendered. These are the kinds of objects that stick in childhood memories of going to Grandma's.
Thorne was a Core Fellow at the Glassell School of Art in 1999 and 2000, and has had other shows in Houston over the years. In 2010, she created an installation for artist Bill Davenport's exhibition space Optical Project. It's nice to see her back in Houston again and doing something similarly ambitious at Devin Borden Gallery.
"Melissa Thorne: A Wall Around a Window" is the kind of project you don't see a lot in commercial galleries. Wall paintings cost time and money to execute. And it's not as if someone can then buy them and walk out the door. (Although, if I had any cash, I'd commission some concrete block wall paintings for my house.) I'm always glad when a gallery goes the extra mile and lets an artist do something that isn't easily salable but is a worthy project. Thorne's paintings are successful in their own right, but in the context of the concrete block wall they become part of a visually and conceptually dynamic installation.
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