Bike works

Rudge Whitworth

Rudge Whitworth, Robert Mielenhausen

Robert Mielenhausen’s solo show is up at Viridian Artists with an opening this weekend, and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since it was delayed after Hurricane Sandy did a number to his house and studio last year. He’s back on track now, and has been doing additional work that looks even more interesting than what he had planned to show a year ago. Jerry Saltz actually stopped in to see Mielenhausen’s previous show at Viridian a couple years ago—the indefatigable Lauren Purje, who was overseeing the opening reception, recognized him on the elevator in the building, and, having friended Saltz on Facebook, invited him to take a look. Saltz liked some of what he saw, but not enough to write it up. He should check out the new stuff. Mielenhausen has found channels to reach some collectors in NYC who’ve bought his work recently, and he deserves to be better known.

Mielenhausen focuses on merging photography and painting in a way that allows him to experiment with materials—emphasizing the texture of the surface. He paints on hollow lauan doors, the kind you can get at Home Depot, sealing them and then aging and weathering them with compounds that he spreads over the surface and lets dry in different ways. That surface is one part of a tension between opposing qualities that he sets up, at various levels in each piece: photography vs. painting, abstract surface vs. representational illusion, and universal vs. particular. The show is a series of images of bicycles he has come across and photographed in New York City, and the images capture not only the human quality of the bikes—most have been heavily used and have the character of an old pair of jeans molded to the wearer’s body—but also a sense of time of day and season. His use of color is especially subtle and evocative, beautiful but in a reserved way that seems to bring out the feeling of the place and the time of the photograph. Though the work is formally experimental, it feels natural, a glimpse of a recognizable moment in ordinary daily life: a visual haiku.

I talked with him briefly this past week about the show.

You developed a lot of your techniques as teaching experiments, right?

Working with students I began to develop this technique and began to pursue it myself and pushed it further with found objects and by making partial reliefs out of the work as well. Again, it’s focused around the idea of marrying, joining photography with painting, not in a gimmicky way, but very straightforward way where the two would meet and join. Texture is a big thing. The idea is to combine elements found in both painting and photography and bringing them into one space.

How did you first think of doing it?

I was sort of interested in David Hockney’s joined photographs. I saw his show back, maybe twenty years ago, in the Modern, a big retrospective. Not that I derived from that, but the idea that he could use multiple photos and make an image out of it intrigued me.

There was a Cubist impulse in what he was doing back then.

Yes. Abstract. To find something that has a sense of place, and is intimate, but expand on it with other features about what the environment is about. The bikes are as much about the city as they are about the bikes. The sidewalk, the buildings, the light, the mood, what’s going on in that space. The bike is something which is sort of still, but at the same time, gives context.

It’s parked and waiting. It’s there for a reason.

Right, there’s a sense of place. People ask why do you do bikes?

It’s abstract, but it also has emotional and seasonal associations even though it works in an abstract way with the shadow that comes off of it.

Yes. Working with that light and the perspective and how that sculpture on the surface creates a presence and a structure with light and shadow, and how that lends to the whole, and is pulled together by that. Generally speaking, I shoot some newer bikes and some pristine-looking, but most of them are old, beat-up, they’ve been around a bit. I like that vintage quality, as if it’s sculpture. I ride bikes myself, we have a couple really old Schwinn bikes that we ride, and I’ve always enjoyed it, but I’ve always found the form of it, the aspects of the wheel and how it’s shot and what context it’s in creates a whole other quality.

Tell me about your materials.

I was working on plywood, but it’s incredibly heavy. So now I’m working on lauan doors and I have some where I cut them into irregular shapes, just as you would with a canvas. The surface is good because it’s hard, it doesn’t warp. and you can can add texture and build up weight on top of it, with wallboard compound. A found object, layers, I can add and it holds up very well.

If you cut it, it’s  hollow.

What I do then, is I buy lattice and glue it in place, tape it. That dries and that takes care of the edge. They’re light compared to what I was doing in the beginning.

Do you treat it?

I prime it. Either an oil base, like a Kilz, or Kilz latex, and that works well to seal it up. Some areas I build up with illustration board if it’s an element of architecture or a part of a curb, and on top of that I build with wallboard compound which takes a little time to dry. You can play with that, vary the textures of that. Then I paint with acrylic.

How do you print the photos?

I have someone who does it for me, who has a large-format printer. Which is really good.

How big?

Up to four by whatever. Some of the images I’ve shot are on film, going back a ways, and he will just digitize it and work it up. The prints are good, they’re clear.

Who are your influences?

James Rosenquist is a big one. I like the way he puts things together and the scale of the work. He’ll take a lipstick tube or something and turn it into a missile. One thing becomes something very different. I like that idea. I’m not doing that, exactly, but I like the idea of taking something on one scale and putting it into an entirely different scale. When I’m shooting, I may have no idea what I’ll do with the photograph, but in the studio I’ll have a bunch of 4 x 6s made up and fool with them and work it out. This will go large. It’ll be a triptych. Whatever. David Hockney I find interesting. Beyond that, with light and texture, Caravaggio. I like the whole physical act of building the layering out. People want to come up and want to touch it.

I really like the work.

They’re fun to do, there’s variety to them. It’s not a formulaic approach. It varies, with some more abstract while others are more literal.

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