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Quiet in the chaos: Mel Prest at the Schneider Museum of Art

Joint shows at the Schneider, a solo show of Prest's work and a group show curated by Prest, offer viewers a meditative moment contemplating abstraction.

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Installation view of Golden Hour at the Schneider Art Museum. Works (left to right): More Thought Work, Summer Penumbra, and Burst. Image credit: Ezra Marcos

There is a lot of chaos in my world these days – and from what I hear from friends and absorb from the media, that’s true for many people. Order, particularly imperfect order, is appealing to me because it offers both a concrete and phenomenological alternative. There’s a calm that (I hear) happens when the socks are all paired or the file folders all alphabetized. But that rogue pair of mismatches or the one folder out of sequence offers something else: a reason, perhaps a distraction, a human moment, a story.

 The work of Mel Prest is meticulously linear yet organic, unrelentingly abstract yet personally referential: it is the exhale of a breath taken in the midst of chaos. Golden Hour, currently on view at the Schneider Museum through December 9, is a solo exhibition of Prest’s recent work which takes its name from the magical transition of the “exuberance” (or chaos) of the day to the stillness of the night. Sensate Objects, a group show of 13 visual artists curated by Prest occupies the two other galleries of the museum.  

For Golden Hour, Prest both created new works and drew from her existing catalog, finalizing her choices and placement during on-site conversations with Schneider Director Scott Malbaurn and Gallery Manager Maureen Williams. Within the show, order is immediately established by the sizes and shapes of the work. Almost all are square and fit into a small-medium-large system – except the two (out of twelve) that don’t. Admittedly influenced by Josef Albers, Prest structures these works around three colors, a ground and two linear overlays – except when a pencil line slips in.

Installation view of Golden Hour at the Schneider Art Museum. Works (left to right) Fireflies, Double Rainbow Ladder, Cloud Flow, and Sky Diamond. Image credit: Ezra Marcos

Formal structures extend to the flat panel surfaces through the process of the works, much of which is evident through attentive looking (Prest confirmed the approach at her artist talk that accompanied the show as well). Working flat on the surface, Prest begins with a uniform ground over which she lays a ruled “X” that references the form of the square which has preoccupied many artists, including Albers. Over this scaffolding are draped two layers of brushed lines of acrylic which start with a heavy deposit of paint from the brush and taper long, straight, and thin. Despite all the rules and order of their genesis, the lines create unruly optical effects. Angular intersections bend toward and away from the viewer and moiré patterns, most often seen on silk fabric, form and shift like dappled sunlight on the rippled surface of water. They are the distractions, the stories, within the order.

The uniform grounds with which Prest begins often refer to a color she has felt at a particular moment or place. Everyday objects, window views, and scents further inform the choice and relations of colors within the work and Prest hopes the colors will “taste like a flavor, feel like the touch or waft of a scent,” as she explains in her artist statement. The works certainly create a particular climate within the Schneider Museum gallery – hung with excited pinks, greys, and greens on the left and calmer aquas and blues to the right. It feels as if one measures their subconscious mood in choosing their direction. 

Fireflies (2022), on the far right rear wall, is one of the few works without an obvious underlying “X.” The work visually buzzes across the gallery space, vertically oriented, with its shamrock green and greyish purple diagonals fluctuating forwards and back into the mint green underlay. It is a visual translation of the sound of fireflies.

Installation view of Sensate Objects at the Schneider Museum of Art. Image credit: Ezra Marcos

Prest confesses that curation is her mitigation of historically “terrible” collaboration attempts in her painting practice. The structure of this thought – the inherent compartmentalization – offers explanation beyond the language. The separation of painting and curation also explains the presence of Sensate Objects as a self-contained show in the two adjacent spaces of the Treehaven gallery, despite the fact that many of the works hold a (long distance) conversation with Prest’s panels.

In her curation of Sensate Objects, Mel Prest brought together artists whose work she appreciates, and in many cases shares historical influences with. Her intention of creating connection between these artists succeeds admirably and is insightfully unpacked by art historian and critic, Sue Taylor in the accompanying catalog. Works such as Sarah Wertzberger’s Wave Weave (2021), handwoven on a digital Jacquard loom, manipulates the gridded structures of weaving to create optical effects. The work corresponds in many ways with Prest’s tactile painted nets such as Sky Diamond (2022) which uses a similar hue of blue. The influence of Op-art pioneer Bridget Riley murmurs under both works.

Alex Paik, Right Triangle (Curve) (2022). Image credit: Ezra Marcos

In another conversation between two works, the gentle arcs of cut paper in Alex Paik’s Right Triangle (Curve) (2022) create fluorescent green shadows on the white walls, evoking both the color and linear arrangements of Prest’s More Thought Work (2014). Within the Treehaven galleries, it is the centrality of geometric forms that unites almost all of the works in Sensate Objects. Despite this obvious connection, prolonged engagement from various angles increases the complexity and connections. The subtlety of Nancy White’s untitled (2-2020) (2020) tonal forms whisper across the gallery to Nicole Phungrasamee Fein’s delicate overlays of hues. James Sterling Pitt’s emphatically painted forms seem to have escaped from the tricky space of Pat Boas’ Monogram 4 (for SD/3 women) (2020) to quietly assert their independence. 

Mel Prest is thoughtful in explaining her work, offering both technical practicalities and transcendent sources. In her artist talk (available on YouTube through the Schneider Museum channel), she emphasizes the importance of a practice beyond the studio in which community conversations act as opportunities to learn about others while simultaneously examining one’s own work in a new light. The Golden Hour and Sensate Objects, each show is rich in its own right, create Prest’s ideal conversation, illuminating connections, stories, and underlying orders.

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Mel Prest: Golden Hour and Sensate Objects are on view at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland October 6 – December 10, 2022. The museum is open 10 AM – 4 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays. “Creative Industries Discussion” talks with Prest, the artists, and the scholars of these shows are available on the Schneider Museum YouTube channel.

Georgina Ruff is an art historian of modern and contemporary art and technology. Her interests in the conservation of obsolescing media and immersive installations have led her on explorations of 60's era light shows, Bauhaus illuminations, histories of fluorescent light bulbs, and contemporary spatial politics of object-less art works.

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