Every painting out there offers a chance for a little world. Each world offers a glimpse of utopia or consolation for some absence.

A wallpaper is a vehicle for oneirism, revery. When one is resting in a room with a wallpaper, waiting for someone or hoping to doze off, one’s eye will trace the paths through a chinoiserie landscape or a meandering trellis pattern. And then, one is transported to somewhere halfway between the real room, where the wallpaper is just a background, and the dream world created by the wallpaper.  These paintings are attempts to conjure that halfway space and to live in it for a while.

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? The paintings aim at a re-construction of celebration and affection, 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. They seek affirmation against a background of doubt, cynicism, and sentimentality.

The paintings celebrate the home as a private arena for the aesthetic imagination, where formality is play, boiserie is structure, chintz and toile, emblems of joy. They assert a different kind of aesthetic politics, a different kind of cultural contestation than what we encounter typically in the art world today.  They are also a nod to 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. 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. 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. For better or worse, the critique of the male gaze does not erase it. 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. 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. 

As with the ogres, the paintings of families are part of a search for a language of depiction for an outmoded theme. Outside of commissioned portraits, paintings of families are rare. The paintings of parents and children 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, 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 seemingly 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 Lightened by a simplicity of feeling, a man floats toward a window, perhaps 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. Paintings like Lightened by a simplicity of feeling are attempts at an imagery of spirituality 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, like me, more of a secular aesthete, it can still mean something for you.

There are two kinds of paintings-within-paintings. 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 picture plane as a flat 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. Tsuguharu Foujita, Frank Stella, April Gornick, 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.

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. The titles of the landscape paintings are almost all from John Ashbery’s long poem, Flow Chart.

I hope these paintings offer an alternative  aesthetic environment by re-purposing an older one. We live in a happy kingdom of arts and letters. Our cultural traditions are good, friendly, and worth inhabiting.

About the Artist

Kevin Melchionne is a painter who writes about aesthetics.