A small confession: one very dark summer not too long ago I watched all seven seasons of Melrose Place, the Fox television show that aired from 1992 to 1999 and was produced by Aaron Spelling. I did this at a rather embarrassing pace. This was primarily a mindless exercise, but I grew to admire the show’s endless and implausible plot twists, as well as the distinct change of tone that occurs around the end of season two. The series began as a mere coming-of-age drama among a group of attractive twenty-somethings with low-level jobs mostly in the service industry around Los Angeles. They all live in the confoundingly manicured apartment building in the show’s title, and come from diverse backgrounds. This being network television in the 1990s, diverse is defined as: there was one black woman who was written off the show before the end of the first season, and a gay social worker who helps navigate the cast through the issues facing the country at the end of the first Bush presidency. The show was topical to the point of absurdity and the use of condoms among the neighbors is a major recurring plot point. (A climactic moment of season one is when Jake, the bad boy with a heart of gold, tells the artistic and sensitive Jo, “I never wanted to hurt you, and now I might have given you AIDS.”)
Ratings were always high, especially once Heather Locklear entered the mix in the middle of season one as a fiery ad executive, but the audience response didn’t reach a popular culture fever point until the next year, when the series veered from its earnestness and became the most diabolical hour on television. Michael Mancini, the young doctor who is also the building’s super, transforms from loving husband to the hopelessly underdeveloped Jane (played by supermodel Josie Bissett) into a murderous psychopath who is having an affair with another murderous psychopath (Kimberly, played by a creepy Marcia Cross, who deserved better than this) who helps him meddle in and destroy everyone’s lives, including Jane’s, of course, who becomes a much more interesting character once she turns into the Job of L.A. County. Alison, initially the show’s wide-eyed protagonist, embarks on a string of misguided love affairs leading to a really pretty scary stalker and her eventual alcoholism. At the beginning of season four, Kimberly detonates a bomb and the apartment building explodes, but everything remains kind of inexplicably fine after that, as if nothing happened.
Melrose Place was not famous for its subtlety, but one of the things that was lost on me while I watched the show was the nearly subliminal presence of art works by a collective known as the GALA Committee, led by conceptual artist Mel Chin. The project was titled In the Name of the Place, and will be the subject of a retrospective exhibition at Red Bull Studios in New York this fall.
In 1994, Chin was teaching at the University of Georgia, and flying back and forth to L.A., where a lot of the collective was based (GALA stands for Georgia/Los Angeles). L.A. being the capital of the entertainment industry, Chin thought of the city as being “in the air, a microwave transmission sent out throughout the country.” He was spending a lot of time thinking of ways to provide an alternative to the way art was displayed, particularly in museums.
“And just by chance,” he told me in an interview, “my wife was flipping through the channels, and I came across the image of Heather Locklear. And she moved her head, and there was a painting. And I thought: that’s the gallery. The medium of Aaron Spelling had so much more impact on our culture than a museum exhibition.”
Chin sought out Deborah Siegel, Melrose Place’s set decorator, who took the idea of having the collective make works for the show to the network executives. Chin’s plan was for the works to appear on TV over a period of years, then to show them in a museum, after which they’d be auctioned off, with the proceeds benefiting various charities. Starting in season four, in February 1996, the work started to pop up on the series, in the background of scenes. A crucial part of the pitch was that the artists would receive no money.
“It’s like becoming a Kung-Fu master,” Chin said. “You gotta give up something. We decided to give up the cash.”
This obviously went over well with the studio executives, concerned with the bottom line, and the artists were able to get away with most of their ideas. Chin said of about 200 works that the group produced, roughly 70 percent were accepted. In one episode, when Alison gets pregnant, she wraps herself in a quilt that has printed on it the chemical structure of RU-486, the morning after pill. One important subplot deals with a character’s pretty domestic paintings, which are actually depictions of the sites of gruesome violence across L.A.—the Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, or Nicole Brown Simpson’s condo. An ad campaign overseen by Locklear’s firm on the show is the work of the GALA Committee. (It’s for a beverage company, and the tagline is: “It’s in the water.”) In one scene, Kimberly holds a Chinese takeout box, which has written on it, in Chinese characters, the words “Human Rights” and “Turmoil and Chaos,” a nod to the different interpretations among the West and China of the Tiananmen Square protests. Chin said his students and colleagues in Georgia would watch Melrose Place every Monday and take notes.
After filming ended on season five, the work appeared in the group show “Uncommon Sense” at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1997, which was organized by Tom Finkelpearl and Julie Lazar. The show looked specifically at unusual artistic collaborations. The GALA Committee’s work was installed inside a recreated set from Melrose Place.
“I wasn’t necessarily a Melrose Place watcher,” Finkelpearl, who is now commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, told me. “But it was a huge show. It was super on the consciousness of other people.”
He said the idea for the project was not to publicize the presence of the works until after the fact, though rumors circulated on the then-nascent internet chat rooms devoted to the show. Even once the word got out that a group of artists had infiltrated primetime, Finkelpearl was surprised that Chin and the GALA Committee didn’t get more press.
“I mean, whose work actually gets on television?” he said. “Some of [the works] were onscreen quite a bit. Every time they were seen, they were seen by millions and millions of people. And then they went to MOCA, which is a major museum, but there’s not millions of people showing up there. This was probably the most viewed work of art that year, in the world. But it wasn’t well-known at the same time.”
The culmination of the project was an episode of Melrose Place where Locklear’s character signs MOCA as a client and attends the opening of “Uncommon Sense.” (“Looks like a bunch of dots to me,” she says, inspecting a painting in a scene that is filmed at the museum. She later admits, “I wanted to major in art, but it wasn’t practical.”) The paratextual implications of this reach John Barth levels of headache-inducing frustration. To be clear: a fictional character’s fake ad agency gives real publicity to a real museum that is exhibiting the real (secret) art that appeared in the fake world of the real show. The art world has come to increasingly pander to popular culture—the shoehorned appearances of various celebrities in museum programming come to mind—but for a brief moment in the late ’90s, high-brow and low-brow media were seamlessly integrated, to such an extent that very few people even noticed.
“Television is about product placement,” Chin said. “So the question was why don’t we place ideas on there, and open up the complexity [TV] can offer.”
Chin’s exhibition in the fall is giving the GALA Committee a kind of second life, but art exhibitions come and go. The persistence of television itself has kept Chin’s work in the ether. Melrose Place, as Chin said, was a kind of viral video before we had such a term to describe that which a person can’t look away from. And, like so many other ‘90s television shows, it’s currently in international syndication.
“Melrose Place is still playing somewhere in the world,” Chin said.
Post has been updated to reflect that Aaron Spelling was Melrose Place‘s executive producer, not creator.