Couples and Families


Hills and Islands

Stones and Trees


Notes toward a Grandmillennial Polemic

The room is the setting for a little drama or short story featuring a couple or a family. More than just figures, they are characters with stories implied by where they are and what they are doing.

But why this sort of room and these couples? A bit of polemic comes into play that may help the viewer navigate the body of work. These paintings aim at a re-construction of affection and celebration, albeit at the edge of metaphysical or moral uncertainty. The characters reach for love, happiness, togetherness, although these states are elusive and even disappointing for them. The paintings attempt to capture this tension. They seek affirmation against a background of doubt, cynicism, and sentimentality.

The term grandmillennial denotes the contemporary stylistic tendency in home decoration emphasizing traditional aesthetic values. Pitted against mid-century modern, the signpost of hip over the past decade or two, grandmillennialism embraces pattern, molding, density, and color. The sensibility takes formality as play, boiserie as structure, chintz and toile as emblems of joy. At a cultural level, it is a vindication of the whole tradition of interior decoration, dating back to Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman’s Decoration of Houses, as well as to Elsie de Wolfe, Nancy Lancaster, Dorothy Draper and so many others. But grandmillennial also suggests something more. It celebrates the home as the private arena for the aesthetic imagination. It asserts a different kind of aesthetic politics than what we encounter in the art world. Imported into that world, the term stands for a labor of cultural reconstruction rooted in this domestic imaginary, offering reprieve from the moment’s culture of rote denunciation and complaint. Grandmillennial helps to create a delimited space for love and joy, and in so doing, for a different kind of cultural contestation.

Of course, the idea of grandmillennial will have its detractors (after all, haters gonna hate), but its power lies in a certain obliviousness to critique. In the spirit of Hegel on skepticism, it stands as a critique of critique. What is polemical is affirmation itself and, so, the title of the work, Grandmillennial Polemic is something of an oxymoron. The young woman in her Empire dress and long gloves looks like she has just come out of a Jane Austen novel. She peers across a room, towards a window as she reaches for (and perhaps holds down) a man, probably her boyfriend. She is a bride or a bridesmaid; he floats in the air in his underwear, looking at his phone. Maybe they are supposed to go to a wedding on this morning, maybe their own. Uninterested or having forgotten, he remains outside her aesthetic imaginary.

Much of the history of figure painting is, of course, the history of men looking at women, and we have all heard enough about that. Today, we cannot look at an image of a heterosexual couple without seeing gender politics. Every painter of figures—or novelist or poet—discovers their characters already enmeshed in gender politics, even when they do not create them in the name of one. The critique of the male gaze does not, however, erase pleasure in the gaze. Still, the role of the gaze in figure painting can change. Some of these paintings are attempts to re-structure the gaze by bringing it inside the painting; we look at the gazer and not just at what is gazed at. This changes the status of the gaze. Several of the paintings feature the stock character of the ogre. Half-naked, out-of-shape, undesired, the ogre is a loser, nobody, or incel, and yet his desires are still real for him. Paintings like As though another form of life is possible thematize looking not just as a position of power, but also as one of vulnerability. Here, the representation of gender is not the obvious one of an NPR news-reader. Neither progressive nor reactionary, these paintings back into another space whose sensibility is somewhat feminist and yet somewhat conservative (in the authentic, Burkean sense). The characters in these stories are in search of something affirmative, albeit elusive, even as they face conflict and remain just who they are.

As with the ogres, the paintings of families are part of a search for a language of depiction for a marginalized theme. Outside of commissioned portraits, paintings of families are rare. The family paintings here are mostly dramas of coming-of-age, liminal moments in the story of a family. In one painting, a teenaged boy has quit the team and written his first poem. As he looks outwards toward his artistic future, as his parents look on with a mixture of worry and admiration. In another, a young woman has come home from college with an abstract painting vaguely in the style of de Kooning but also seeming to be influenced by the wallpaper of her family's dining room. She has just told her parents of her intent to change her major to painting. The man (her father or maybe her grandfather) looks at some paperwork placed before him by her mother.

In The inkling of some utopian conceit, a man floats toward a window, seemingly in prayer, while a woman closes the curtains, hiding another episode of ekstasis from the neighbors. Depictions of ekstasis were quite common in the baroque era, when artists of the counter-reformation strived to illustrate a specifically Roman Catholic religious fervor. Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa figures famously. More broadly, however, ekstasis can simply mean a moment of insight or heightened consciousness. For instance, Heidegger used it in Being and Time to stand for the self’s authentic self-understanding as a temporal, finite being. Paintings like Inkling of some utopian conceit are attempts at an imagery of ekstasis for our time. They affirm the spiritual instinct implicit in ekstasis without going in for any ideological or confessional agenda. They situate it within a contemporary world that tolerates it only reluctantly. If you are Christian, you will take the painting in a certain way but, if you are more of a secular aesthete, it can still mean something for you.

There are two kinds of paintings-within-paintings here. First, the wallpapers are a kind of painting-within-the-painting. It is important that the pattern is in a fictional room, subject to its light and perspective, and not on the surface as a real decorative pattern. Through the pictorial fiction, the paintings become little aesthetic day-dreams inspired by certain interior decorators, textile manufacturers, and film sets. Second, the depicted paintings on the walls in the rooms are based loosely on real works of art. Cy Twombly, Thomas Nozkowski, and Egon Schiele are among those represented. Like the wallpapers, the paintings-within-the-painting are designed to reward viewers owning up to a bit of hermeneutic ambition. If it is your way, you can dig at most of these paintings as you might by one by R. B. Kitaj or a poem by T. S. Eliot. The paintings facilitate this exercise at the heart of appreciating art, and in this way, too, are a recovery of an older way of engaging the viewer’s interpretive expectations.

The titles of most of the paintings of couples are lines--or adapted from lines--from the poet, John Koethe. I sometimes introduce minor elisions to simplify or alter the meaning. As I read Koethe, I underline the passages that strike me as most in line with what I am trying to do with a painting. As I make preparatory drawings for an idea, these lines from Koethe are in the back of my head, pushing the iterations of the project in a certain emotional direction that it would not have had without the poet’s help. I think that the viewer enjoys the same push from the poet’s title.

The titles of the landscape paintings are from John Ashbery’s long poem, Flow Chart. Here, however, the process works in the opposite direction and is more serendipitous. When a landscape painting is nearing completion, I just read Flow Chart with the painting in mind until I come to the line or phrase that resonates with the painting. I find reading a poem with a painting in mind deepens the experience of both the poem and the painting. With both Koethe and Ashbery, a special purpose for reading creates a personal connection and attachment to their work, as well as a layer of interpretive richness for the viewer.

That richness matters. Overall, these paintings offer an alternative hermeneutic structure by recovering an older one where works of art exist warmly alongside others, a happy kingdom of arts and letters. Helps art world denizens to let go of the mock difficulty in fake philosophical “questions” about what art is, or shock as a ploy for attention, or the overwrought complaints of a politics that we all already accept. These are no more than the middle-brow conventions of our moment. Instead, we can embroider our aesthetic lives into a deeper culture, weaving emotion, thought, and allusion, because it turns out that the culture is good and worth inhabiting. Art becomes instead an effort to, in the words of Stanley Kunitz, “live in the layers, not on the litter.”

About the Artist

Kevin Melchionne is a painter who writes about aesthetics.