Bad art

Paul Mellender says most art in Reno doesn’t live up to a higher artistic standard

Paul Mellender challenges Reno artists to be honest about what he calls “the true nature of art.”<br>

Paul Mellender challenges Reno artists to be honest about what he calls “the true nature of art.”

Photo by David Robert

Art is war. That’s the motto Paul Mellender has been living by ever since he squared off with his high-school art teacher and told her he was not going to follow her instructions. Assignments, student art shows and painting with one eye on the marketplace and the other on the canvas were not for him.

In the years since, little has changed. Mellender paints for one reason: It’s part of daily survival. The act of placing paintbrush to canvas makes him and the world around him come alive.

The latest work to come out of Mellender’s studio is on display at the Record Street Café. Titled “The Arrival,” it is one of 18 pieces by local artists that comprise the Birds and the Bees exhibit.

Mellender likes to make things tricky, so “The Arrival” is not an easy piece to comprehend. The large oil painting depicts a minotaur, half man and half bull, and a bare-breasted woman standing beneath a wooden threshold—all of this against a backdrop of dark, crashing waves. And since Mellender thrives on puzzles and intellectual inquiry, the piece has riddles in it that pertain to astronomical calendars, marriage rites and the Temple of Solomon.

The nitty-gritty stuff is associated with the minotaur. He wears a shroud over his head that covers most of his body, his genitals and the fact that he’s been castrated. His missing penis is delicately hidden elsewhere in the painting. (How’s that for a good pick-up line? “Hey baby, you wanna go over to this café I know and track down a missing penis?")

For most painters, cranking out the work, making a little money and getting a few pats on the back might be enough. Not Mellender. Anything short of a down-and-dirty, full-blown artistic effort, by himself or anyone else, has been known to get his paintbrushes in an uproar.

When this happens, Mellender likes to muscle up and go on the attack. He plunks himself down at the computer and cuts loose with an outpouring of letters. Last year, he criticized Artown’s big-horn sheep, and he recently wrote a letter to the RN&R ("Art Attack,” May 1) in which he lambasted local artist Mike Sarich:

“Michael Sarich is no artist. His worries over clichés, social classes and political frames indicate this. Art existed before politics and is unrelated to politics. Socio-political symbols in art are laughable. His work isn’t funny. It isn’t offensive. It isn’t thoughtful. It is a waste of supplies. Pop art hooks are consumptive.”

Aside from artists and art writers, Mellender has criticized museums, gallery owners and foundations. He implores them to defend themselves—to be as hard on themselves as he is on himself.

“What Reno and the rest of the world need is a great big, bare-knuckle, dead-honest forum about the true nature of art, and this is one way to see that it happens,” says the 32-year-old.

Recently, Mellender and Steven Zevitas, editor and publisher of New American Painting, exchanged a series of letters, each challenging the other to defend his stance on what constitutes quality art. The mutual back-and-forth ended with Zevitas bidding Mellender a fond adieu: “You’re a romantic, my poet friend.”

The roots of Mellender’s mad-dog approach may lie in a peculiar incident that happened when he was two years old. He accidentally overdosed on Stelazine, an anti-depressant medication that belonged to a friend of his parents. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors pumped his stomach, and he flat-lined for a short time before fighting his way back to life. Then, several weeks later, a miraculous thing happened in the Mellender household: Little Paul picked up a pencil and began drawing. Napkins. Pieces of scrap paper. Backs of envelopes.

“I read where Robert Graves, the great English poet, almost died in World War I and, soon after, began writing for his life,” Mellender says. “That’s what got me to thinking about why I started drawing when I did. Maybe it altered my consciousness level in some way.”

There might be another reason Mellender became an artist: He grew up in an artistic household. His parents, Skip and Helen Mellender, are talents. Dad is a professional drummer with a flair for color photography, while Mom is a realist painter.

“They’ve both been tremendous,” he says. “My mother never sat me down and gave me formal lessons. She told me to learn how to paint like myself.”

When Mellender is not busy standing in front of a canvas or hunched over his keyboard knocking down his latest attack letter, he likes to read. Deeply immersed in the studies of mythology, history, philosophy, alchemy and religion, Mellender finds these fields to be rich with inspiration for his paintings.

He is particularly fascinated with the idea of the artist as outsider, stranger, even criminal. Someone who is on the outside looking in and is not shy about pushing the limits of conventional thinking.

One influential book for Mellender has been Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach. “He was a knight who wrote about a fool who discovers the Grail, and from then on every one of the fool’s descendants is estranged,” he says.

Mellender has some of that mythic “stranger” rolling around inside him. He didn’t continue his formal education after graduating from McQueen High School in 1989. He hasn’t taken an art lesson since laying down the law with his high-school art teacher almost 15 years ago.

Mellender puts in eight-hour shifts at Sundance bookstore, where he is manager, and then holes up in his southeast Reno apartment for the nights. It’s only then that he can cater to his constant outpouring of creative energy. A typical night includes getting started around 10:30 and going until about 3 a.m.

“I either paint or read or, some nights, it’s a little bit of both,” he says. “It’s all part of the daily routine.”

Mellender is working on a series of new paintings, one of which is again destined for an opening at the Record Street Café in mid July. He refuses to discuss the details, other than to say the theme is Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “In one way a theme is restrictive, but in another way it opens up lots of ideas.”

Editor’s note: Michael Croft is 13-year director of the Truckee Meadows Writers Conference and a freelance writer. He works at Sundance bookstore with Paul Mellender.