Robert Melee transforms cheap suburban decor into strange, riotous glamour. In the past he has accomplished this through room-size installations incorporating faux wood and marble; plastic shower curtains slickly painted and draped over refrigerator doors; lamps buried in waxlike drips of layered paint; and TV consoles featuring campy home movies of his mother, Rose, in drag. Most of his materials are associated with memories of growing up in 1970s New Jersey, where a flamboyant aunt and a culture of fake opulence instilled in him a love of excess.
In Melee’s masterful Bower Pool (2016), the sculptural centerpiece of his recent exhibition “Semi-Quasi-Bower Recreational,” this impulse to mine the domestic, as site of melodrama and aesthetic folly, is given a proxy: the wondrous bowerbird of Australia, known for creating elaborately decorated nests to lure his mates. The piece consists of a circular above-ground pool, suspended upside down from the ceiling, out of which cascades a cacophony of artificial cheer, including Christmas lights, garlands, a black-sequined dress, computer cords, party favors, silver heating ducts, broken lamps, gilded frames, a half-stuffed harlequin costume, strips of vintage patterned wallpaper, a confetti-covered wig and plastic beads.
Upon closer inspection, the ad hoc nature of the piñata-like explosion reveals a dense and carefully cultivated mayhem. Like much of Melee’s work, Bower Pool is abstract and narrative, spontaneous and ordered. Its formal configuration of all manner of celebratory spectacle, from Mardi Gras and Pride floats to disco clubs and drunken holiday parties, brilliantly conjures the bowerbird’s resourcefulness as well as his nest-making frenzy.
Melee’s ability to alchemize junk is also evident in his signature bottle-cap paintings, two of which were on view. Their deceptively minimalist surfaces, offering a reprieve from the maximalist aplomb of Bower Pool, hide a laborious process: grids of individual bottle caps are nailed onto oblong wood panels, which are coated in plaster, layered with bright hues of green, blue and red enamel paint, and then covered with brick-shaped patterns of gold leaf.
The architectonic forms in the photo-based assemblage series “Atlantic City” (2015), six of which lined a long wall, echoed the geometric compositions of the bottle-cap paintings. Comprising dizzy amalgams of tacky chandelier and lighting parts emerging from the center of large photomontages of 1970s-era hotel casino interiors, the “Atlantic City” works competed with Bower Pool for center stage. The inkjet-printed images abstract the walls, furniture, staircases and flooring of their dystopian sources with grids that merge multiple perspectives, creating kaleidoscopic effects through mirroring, overlays and repetition. Their refracted geometry and tonal palette of browns, golds and oranges conjure Cubist paintings, while their integration of actual lighting fixtures recalls Rauschenberg’s Combines approach. A continuation of the abject glamour Melee has been forging from American suburbia, his visions of Atlantic City salvage the decadent beauty of a gambling mecca in financial ruin.