Nature, magic and the human body are the ever present forces that bring Dean Melbourne’s paintings to life. Functioning almost like independent characters within a play, film or book, these elements permeate into and linger within each of his expressive figurative paintings. By drawing each of us into the complex, liminal worlds he paints, the artist invites us to explore and to become lost in these strange and mysterious places. Melbourne’s most recent body of work, presented in his second solo exhibition with Coates and Scarry, This Myth, is no exception.
A skilful handling of oil paint and gloss paint, oil pastel and varnish enables Melbourne to build luscious surfaces that vibrate against their canvas or paper grounds. Bright colour is typically off-set by deep, black tones that infer, perhaps, a more sinister or superstitious atmosphere. Heavily layered line work, in a style closer to drawing, like that found within his painting Wudubeam (2016), gives an impression of swirling or twisting movement within the figures, creatures, trees, flowers and more bodily motifs. This restlessness is indicative of both the subject of the works and the painter himself. A keen impression of energy is counter-balanced, however, in calmer works with much looser, broader washes of colour, where a painted flower, for instance, dreamily drips onto forest foliage below. These are surfaces that beg to be discovered and to be touched, almost as if the paintings are layers of scenery on a stage set or more permeable membranes that can be passed through via osmosis. For Melbourne, painting is used as much to indicate a range of emotional, psychological and bodily experiences, as much as it is to depict particular figures, faces or forms.
The paintings of visionary and symbolist painters such as William Blake, Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau are important points of art historical reference for Melbourne. He also selects threads of narrative from sources as wide-ranging as Anglo-Saxon folklore, Greek fables, Norse mythology, and science-fiction fantasy novels and films. There is no hierarchy here. Each of these sources of inspiration are as important as the next within his extensive visual vocabulary. His source material is malleable and changeable. An angelic, winged creature that could have been taken from a religious painting of the Renaissance period is just as likely to appear within his work as a stone age flint tool, a tropical orchid, a Gothic gargoyle or a voluptuous female nude. The artist freely samples from diverse forms and ideas. These enable him to produce paintings that create new rituals and myths – a personal collection of tales in which we can all share.
The works offer new and nuanced perspectives across a range of cultural anchor points from the past and the present day. Melbourne’s paintings are particularly informed by what he calls ‘mis-remembered stories’. He describes these as old or perhaps ancient narratives that have been reinterpreted through a contemporary lens. Props, costumes and computer-generated special effects from cult films such as John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), The Dark Crystal, Sinbad, The Never Ending Story and other adventure and fantasy releases of the 1980s that he grew up with, play a key role. Filtered through layers of memory and nostalgia, in a second-hand re-telling of tales, Melbourne’s resulting paintings show scenes that are familiar but also imbued with strange mystery.
The title of the exhibition is also indicative of mystery, as well as a sense of movement between time periods. Echoing both the historic and the contemporary, This Myth suggests an immediacy and timelessness that is palpable within the subject and form of the paintings on display. The title of the exhibition is also an open and ambiguous one – a puzzle to be solved or a code to be cracked apart – which myth? Shimmering surfaces, an eerie glow, a kneeling, cloaked figure, a decorative mask and pinpricks of light appearing in the darkness of the forest – each of these things point toward a moment where anything might happen, where little is known but much can be felt. What we do know, however, is that Melbourne’s paintings show places populated with wild people and wild nature. The artist’s paintings carefully build up and peel back layers of time and layers of narrative to expose, perhaps for the first time in centuries, places of ritual and of deep magic.
(Words by Anneka French)