According to Jungian theory, the presence of a house in dreams is an archetypal representative of a return to our first house, the womb, and the way it reveals itself to us informs our understanding of the human psyche. Each room offers an opportunity to discover untold secrets of the subconscious. Stepping from the hustle and bustle of New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood into Melanie Vote’s solo exhibition, Overgrowth at Hionas Gallery, one enters into what appears to be the abandoned bedroom of a young girl. Her small portrait, painted in muted monochromatic shades of magenta and violet, hangs on a wall covered in a stenciled pastel pattern. Her clothing and hairstyle tell us that she is not of this time. Referenced from an antique photograph Vote discovered in a remote second hand shop, Rhapsody in Magenta and Violet (2016) portrays a deadpan facial expression with a creepy but fascinating quality associated with 1800’s Victorian post mortem photographs. On the opposite wall a tromp l’oeil painting of a window looking out onto a dark night, from which a frog is seen leaping in the reflected light of the room, looks onto a small iron bed frame supporting a mattress torn in the shape of a body, filled with dirt and an assortment of edible and non-consumable plants. Vote combines the symbolism of the frog, a sign of rebirth or transformation, along with the flora in place of the temporal body to suggest that death is in fact simply a change in the state of being. The effect of this fictional space is that it simultaneously feels like a dream and a memory creating the uncanny sensation for the viewer of being both a participant and trespasser.
The very absence and implication of the figure in the first room, underlines the corporeal reality of the artist’s self-portrait in Place Like Home (2008-2016) situated in the second room of the installation. Painted in realistic and pain-staking detail, Vote presents herself dressed in her own wedding gown and laid out on a mosaic tile floor in a corpse-like pose, holding a bouquet of flowers and plants and lit by an ethereal glow while plant life encroaches around the edges. The isolation of this single painting ensconced in an otherwise bare room has the feel of a modern day reliquary, minus the incense and votive candles. Vote’s recent visit to Rome, Italy (in particular the crypts of the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere church) provided much of the inspiration for this piece. The purported history of Saint Cecilia is such that on her wedding night she claimed a vow of virginity and angelic protection inspiring her husband to seek the proof of which led to his conversion to Catholicism. For this and the crime of converting others, she was to be suffocated in the baths but didn’t die nor shed a single drop of sweat. Following this, an executioner was ordered to behead her, but after striking her three times, he was unable to decapitate her, so he left her there where she continued to live three days further before dying from her wounds. When exhumed her body was discovered uncorrupted, beautifully dressed and exuding a mysterious and delightful flower-like odor.
Overgrowth culminates with Vote’s large-scale painting Excavation of Life and Death (2016), set on cement blocks. A nude female body lies in a pit, her right arm flung out behind her and her left leg slightly bent beneath her, giving rise to some fairly macabre thoughts, perhaps more so because of the figure’s gender. The artist’s stated intention is actually that the body is embraced by and reclaimed by the soil. Vote’s mother died of cancer, an overgrowth in itself, and by her own admittance this body of work is a direct result of that experience. By this analogy, the figure seems to be returning to a metaphorical womb of Mother Earth, the grass and negative space forming a subtle reference to the female body. The naked vulnerability of this passive form, entangled in a mass of roots and dirt, is contrasted by the position of her head turned away from the viewer, denying full access to her identity.
In an attempt to bring levity to an otherwise weighty narrative, Vote has painted this scene over a pastel version of Twister [a game invented by Charles Foley and Neil Rabens in which players must place hands and feet on large colored circles determined by the spin of a dial (created in the mid 1960’s)]. This use of nostalgic childhood toys and figures is a recurrent device employed by Vote in previous works in tandem with psychological and dream-like scenarios, such as in Frog Ballet (2014). Sub-contextually, Excavation of Life and Death also carries a connection to the painting in the middle room, Place Like Home, in its metonymical use of use of Twister (another name for tornado) giving the whole installation a secondary read related to the film The Wizard of Oz (1939). Vote’s own family farm was destroyed by a tornado in November of 2015. The artist’s exposure to this threat of destruction in her native Iowa and personal loss seems to have given her a unique perspective on the sovereignty of nature and the cycle of life. In this sense the exhibit, which represents a house, itself an internalized representative of a home in various manifestations, from bedroom to cellar, to the very foundation it is built upon, is a richly contextual meditation on impermanence.