Master of Puppets


Bjarne Melgaard: A New Novel by Bjarne Melgaard
Luxembourg & Dayan
Through December 22, 2012

I open one eye. Sunlight pours in through my Zaha Hadid-designed venetian blinds, casting horizontal shadows on the walls, turning the room into a recumbent prison cell. I was supposed to meet James Franco (who is still a little sore at me for beating him out for the part of Cocktimus Prime in Sue de Beer's hardcore version of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) in Central Park an hour ago, but my Philippe Starck alarm clock (which I fully believe is haunted) failed to wake me.

I open both eyes, decide that it is probably safe, and dress quickly: black crinolined Brioni smoking jacket, Hello Kitty T-shirt, baby seal-skin pants, and boots hand-carved in Brazilian rosewood (by some guy in Tokyo, whose name is comprised entirely of consonants and who has a nine-year waiting list) which resemble small cats, with inlaid Madagascar ebony eyes. I creep softly out of the bedroom; the Yohji Yamamoto espresso machine, also possibly haunted, seems to glare at me as I cross through the kitchen. I whistle softly (a few bars of the new Coldplay song) as I walk by. My head is pounding: last night we went to the new Eric Ripert joint Si Vous Plate, drinks at 1 Oak, dancing at Cisboi with Stavros Niarchos III, Lars Ulrich, Heath Ledger, Lindsay Lohan, and an Olsen twin (Brittany, the smart one, who may or may not still be somewhere in my apartment), and finally, I'm pretty sure, an exorcism in Bushwick. No Olsen in sight, I bolt for the door.

Franco is waiting for me by the 86th street entrance to the park. "Hey man," he says and, seeing my condition, takes pity and empties his pockets: a crumpled cigarette (check), three children's Tylenol (creepy), weaponized morphine (pass), and a new Japanese synthetic called Meow Meow (a mild psychotropic shaped like Flintstones vitamins). I take a Betty Rubble and a Dino. We had made plans to run and then look at art -- Franco suggests Picasso at the Guggenheim or maybe the Gagosian. "Picasso? I thought we were going to look at art?" I interject. We settle on Bjarne Melgaard's show at Luxembourg & Dayan.

Melgaard has transformed the gallery into a three-dimensional, meta version of his most recent novel. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Melgaard is a prolific, profane, and much-admired polymath. In addition to creating paintings, drawings, films, furniture, and objects, he has written over a dozen novels. These exploded accretions of words and ideas, with their fevers of graphic violence, explicit sadomasochistic sex, and unexpected poignancy, do not adhere to the conventions of dignified narrative. For Melgaard, the novel is a site where ideas, both good and bad, can proliferate freely and where attention follows the upended logic of what actually takes place instead of what ideally should happen. Melgaard steadfastly refuses to locate the frontier between reality and fantasy. "I am more interested in telling a good story than a boring truth," he has said.

Franco, feeling left out again (I am beginning to regret actually getting the Cocktimus Prime part; maybe I can convince de Beer to give him the role of Mudflap, a tiny dildo with no lines), starts talking about his new book: "My first chapbook came out, Strongest of the Litter, but people seem to be more interested in who I'm dating than poetry. Oh yeah, I got nominated for a National Entertainment Journalism award for writing Huffington Post blogs, but no other outlet is going to run that story, right? Hahaha -- why would Gawker or the New York Post want to publicize that an actor-slash-Yale doctoral candidate is nominated for an award for something that they are doing themselves? I'm pretty proud of it, but I can see why they must hate me." I hate you, I think to myself.

The exhibition A New Novel by Bjarne Melgaard coincides with the publication of the artist's latest novel, his first ever to be published commercially in English. Working closely with a group of leading designers and craftspeople, Melgaard transformed the gallery's Upper East Side townhouse into a completely immersive environment that uses his new novel's story -- its protagonist's tortured infatuation with a doorman and the willing degradations of a surrounding cast of characters -- as a point of departure to plumb further the through-line of his entire practice: an exploration of the ways in which sex and violence dovetail with love and loneliness. Franco is ebullient, "This is fantastic! He is an artist, playing a writer, who is playing an artist! How brilliant! How Meta! It reminds me of what Pablo Picasso said: 'Art is a lie that reveals the Truth.'" Picasso again. Please. Kill. Me.

The first floor, a wallpapered living room, the walls aged, water-stained, and peeling, is filled with surreal furniture, handmade dolls, Pink Panther drawings, ephemera (the Pink Panther, Britt Ekland, and Peter Sellers serve as surrogates for characters from both his novel and the larger pantheon of recurring figures in his overall body of work), and homages to Savannah, the porn actress who committed suicide at the age of 24 after a disfiguring car accident. We stumble over stacks of Melgaard's novel, placed like vertical Carl Andre's throughout the room. Poetry Concrete.

Climbing to the second floor, we encounter more tableaux: dioramas of dolls smoking crack, or performing needless surgeries on each other, and a stop-motion BDSM doll-snuff film. More than 150 dolls of different sizes were made for the show by JoJo Baby, Gabe Bartalos, Colleen Rochette, and Jessica Scott. These odd figurines wear couture clothing made by Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler in collaboration with Melgaard. The rooms where the dolls appear are furnished with rugs and layers of patterned wallpaper of his own design, along with furniture created in collaboration with Billy Cotton and upholstered in vintage Ozzie Clark dresses, textiles made by Proenza Schouler, and a jacquard fabric based on the paintings Melgaard created for the exhibition.

Alissa Bennett, a writer and director of the gallery, emerges, resplendent in a forsythia-colored vintage Prada dress and eel-skin and anaconda Manolos. "I am so glad you stopped by! Bjarne will be here any minute!" Seeing Franco's befuddlement at the seeming morass of the installation, Bennett takes us up to the third floor. "The centerpiece!" she says, enthusiastically. Thirteen new paintings -- lush, lavishly colored, and visually seductive pictures of tigers presented within the tableaux rooms of the house. Their ropey skeins of intense color evoke viscera, offering a beautiful interpretation of the violence depicted in Melgaard's book. Like the cartoon animals depicted elsewhere in his oeuvre, these tigers serve as stand-ins for the artist, charismatic and camouflaged, constantly negotiating between the dual impulses of predation and love. Melgaard began making the tiger paintings while preparing for a major exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He collaborated with Bellevue Survivors, a group of disabled people in recovery from mental or emotional challenge including political torture. The lawlessness of the mind and its ultimate unsuitability for strict codes, as well as shifting boundaries between reality and fantasy worlds, serve as powerful subtexts for Melgaard's canvases. He is both a Rimbaud and a Proust. The canvases are hinged to the wall; Bennett explains, "Bjarne has written extra chapters to the novel on the back of each one. He is combining all of the work into one large meta-work -- image and object and language all fused together."

I am reminded of something that James Joyce's psychiatrist, who also treated his schizophrenic daughter, said to him regarding his oblique, autistic writing. She remarked that the only difference between his explorations and his daughter's illness was that he dove into the darker realms of psychology, whereas his daughter sank. It is a difficult balancing act, presenting chaos without succumbing to it. Melgaard mines ever-deeper depths in his work; he is an intrepid sub-mariner of the psyche -- his writing our diving bell, his paintings, fragile rafts. - Bradley Rubenstein

Luxembourg & Dayan is at 64 East 77th Street, New York, New York.


Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.