|Melissa Day: New Painting
Red Head Gallery,Toronto
26 June to 20 July, 2002
By Andrew Wright
The first thing one may notice about the latest painting by Melissa Day is not its visual presence, but rather its smell. The familiar odour of nail polish enamel can, at times, be sensed before seeing the work. It is appropriate that this work can activate other senses than vision - the link between smell and memory can be particularly strong. For me, the memory conjured is one of my mother getting ready for an evening of Bridge. Nail polish mixed with her perfume and the smell of her lipstick will always represent those Thursday evenings.
The smell and sight of nail polish being applied became my first references for both femininity and painting. The procedure, precision, and commitment required to "paint one's nails" was far closer to the activity of making art than anything I had yet accomplished with my crayons.
This is not to say that the visual impact of Day's work is in any way subordinate to its odour. It is simply that the signs of a particular kind of commercialized femininity may be foregrounded before contemplating Day's massive grid a sort of odoriferous pre-cognition.
Day's body of work is, in fact, full of forebodings: gestures towards the practice of painting itself. Her inventive appropriation of objects and materials belies her uncertain relationship to paint. And it is this uncertainty that, in Day's hands, becomes rich artistic territory.
A printmaker by training, Day's early paintings used very little paint at all. By stretching and rubbing nylons over an old radiator she found in her studio, works were formed by transferring the decorative cast iron pattern to the nylons. These were in turn stretched over painted panels and sparingly painted again. The works' surfaces little resemble their source material, and despite the use of nylon crotches (and their would-be highly charged sexual overtones) these works do not become trite and predictable feminist juxtapositions. Instead, they are sensitive and well-developed abstract studies one step removed from actual painting.
Likewise, in an extensive series of works based on Martha Stewart's commercially available line of paint, Day appropriates an entire palette and system for combining colours. Minor interventions onto paint chip samples become miniature works in themselves - a gesture that posits 'painting' without having painted anything at all. For Day, Martha Stewart is the "arbiter of middle class taste" and a focus for the expression of "domestic feminine desire."
In New Painting, Day again borrows a palette. She relentlessly pilfers from the stock of existing nail enamels and incorporates colours that iridesce, sparkle, and even glow in the dark. They become arranged by numerical system (we assume), making the work both homage to and a sending up of conceptualist process-based painting practices. Gerald Ferguson meets Britney Spears. The security glass as support provides a ready-made grid and physical separation between the painted surfaces and the wall. The paint seems at yet another step removed from the surface that holds it--drawing it away from the flatness that characterizes high modernist (and masculine) painting. The critique continues through her use of heroic scale, built up by distinctly non-heroic and even 'pretty' colours.
In Day's work, painting seems at odds with the very structures that enable it: nylons envelop paint and activate it; painted surfaces get covered with glass, plexi, or translucent vinyl; palettes and systems are borrowed from the world of feminine consumerism. We could perhaps call what Day does a kind of feminist 'proto-painting': a willful reluctance to operate completely within what have become masculine modes, and yet, at the same time, an ability to create aesthetic, conceptually engaged, beautiful and painterly works that are undeniably paintings.