Printer Friendly

The Search for Melvino Garretti.

Last year, I was introduced to the work of Melvino Garretti, an artist whose art-making practice was initiated through the Studio Watts Workshop in the late 1960's.

The introduction was unexpected and sudden, taking place through a random conversation about art with someone whom I had met in the course of my day. You could say that the "Search for Melvino Garretti" began when they mentioned his name.

"Melvino Garretti! ...

... Yeah, he does stuff like that."

"Like what?" I asked.


... like the stuff you're doing!

... like what we've been talking about.

... Traveling places, and doing art.

I don't know what he does exactly, but he's always traveling, and he's doing some kind of art. He just got back into town a little while ago. I'll give you his phone number."

"Okay. Sure." I said.

I took the phone number and wondered to myself, " Where have I heard that name? Melvino Garretti ..." It sounded familiar. Later, it would dawn on me. I hadn't heard it so much as I had seen it. I had been dividing my time across graffiti interventions, a computer networking job, and visits with friends and family, local and abroad. Along those pathways, I formed a habit of bringing along a few selected readings that I would thumb through when free or captive in transit. Within the collection was a book entitled "African-American Artists in Los Angeles: A Survey Exhibition." It had been produced by the City of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs. It featured a group of African-American artists active during certain periods of time in Los Angeles. I thought that perhaps I had seen his name somewhere in there.

A short time later, I returned to that book in search of Melvino Garretti. I found the page that listed a subset of artists who began exhibiting artworks sometime between 1966 and 1989. I started at the top of the two-columned list of artists, reading down from one name to the next. I had read through more than twenty names, gotten to Frederick Eversley, then Claude Fiddler, Melvino Garretti, David Hammons, Eugene Hawkins. And then.... Wait!

I doubled back through the list, took a glance at the names surrounding Melvino Garretti's, peering back and forth between those names and his, repeatedly. I did the exercise for a few seconds more, and then laughed at a revelation. The name, "Melvino Garretti" was a performance. Regardless of the reasons why he may have taken on the name, it alluded to an extreme gesture of non-conformity and invited the observer to question their expectations. The early group exhibitions that saw his participation would have likely documented his name in a similar context: among names that generally shared an American commonality or had been liberated in the direction of an African origin. The sight of an Italian name in such a listing of African-American artists must have led many viewers to do a double-take. "Melvino Garretti" made you look twice.

Finally, a few weeks later, I found the small piece of paper that had Melvino's phone number scrawled on it and decided to give him a call.

"Haehhlllooo ... ?!"

Melvino picked up, with a subtle tone of " ... Hey, this-had-better-not-be-some-bullshit" sprinkled across his voice. But, it wasn't only him. That feeling was mutual. We'd both entered into conversation with a dose of skepticism. The value of the meeting for me, however, was difficult to discount, because it offered a rare opportunity for me to gain exposure to an African-American artist whose practice began in the 1960s.

We opted for a meeting that would take place a few days later at a coffee shop in Mid-City Los Angeles. That morning, Melvino arrived before me. I spied him across the room at the other entrance, opposite the door I had entered. He looked kind of non-suspect, quietly observing the crowd as it gathered near the pick-up counter. I ordered an Americano, a small, tall or whatever the little cup size is in the coffee shop's marketing name-game, and I said my name. "Eze," and then spelled it out "A-Y-Z-A-Y," a make-shift phonetic version of my name for the bartista, as she quickly jotted it across the paper cup. Upon hearing my name, Melvino gestured at me from the door, as notice that he would be waiting outside.

Moments later, I grabbed my coffee and headed out the door to find Melvino Garretti, sitting at a patio table, wearing a pair of round specs like Morphius, the character played by Lawrence Fishburne in the 1999 science-fiction film, "The Matrix." Except Melvino was an older version, and he wasn't offering a choice of red or blue pills--one to induce reality or the other to maintain the dream. Perhaps closer to the truth, by the time of this meeting, Melvino had swallowed both of those pills himself, and many times over, since the days of his youth growing up in Compton.

We sat down that morning and began to discuss what "The Search" has meant to him. The search is not regulated to some kind of special class of people who call themselves painters, like myself. Nor does it belong to musicians, writers, dancers, photographers, or any other person whom we tend to call artists. Better said, a unique and particular search belongs to each and anyone who has ever lived. It's a birthright that lasts until one passes, and a rite of passage that continues from where we came until where we go.

The search is just one more facet of an on-going performance that each of us does through a recital of improvised lines and spontaneous actions where there is no rehearsal for rehearsal in lead roles against the backdrop of a stage that existed before each of our characters were written into the plot. The search is always there. Its omnipresence tends to lend it to tendencies of being forgotten, while simultaneously active, a proverbial forest that can't be seen for the proverbial trees. Further, one may become so ensnared by it that one fails to recognize that one's time is consumed by the search, let alone realize that one is involved in a search at all. The search is ill-defined and nebulous, and yet, paradoxically, in great part, the search for each of us is by our own individual designs of which we are the most intimately familiar, while working in combination with parts less easily accounted for, parts that are delivered by something outside of us, which we remain in ceaseless dialogue with for our entire lives.

Imagine a pair of hands covered with soil, moist and rich, freshly pulled from beneath the paved slabs of a busy urban walkway, a subterranean dig-site, where lay a reservoir of memories, textures and fragments of human artifacts laced with the cultural residue that's seeped down through concrete cracks and entered the soil, wet with a stench of fertility, while co-mingled with the sweat of palms growing as they grab at it.

As a young artist, Melvino Garretti had begun to knead and wedge the clay. He had enlisted in the service of art making by way of the Studio Watts Workshop, at that time a newly launched endeavor founded by a former bank employee named James Woods. Although his earliest art making experiences were forays with paint, Melvino had been drawn to ceramics, envisioning the clay as a unique means for defining his own craftsmanship. That notion introduced him to two years of a rigorous, yet fruitful monotony of clay handling in the pottery shop of Richard Bennet, where Japanese techniques and philosophy of production pottery were taught. There in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts at Great Barrington Pottery, Melvino found himself immersed in the beginnings of an art practice, learning the rudiments of pottery-making in a Japanese workshop, firing pottery within an authentic wood-burning kiln.

Sponsored by the Studio Watts Workshop, Garretti pivoted between his studies at Barrington Pottery and a stream of collaborations with Anna Halprin's a dance company, The San Francisco Dancers Workshop. Although, Melvino might not have been what was conventionally considered a dancer at that time, the sessions he performed with Anna Halprin's dance company might not have been what was conventionally considered dance either. In fact, many of the dance exercises and routines that Melvino performed in the dance collective, which encompassed members of both Studio Watts Workshop and Anna Halprin's San Francisco Dance Company, might today be called performance art. Anna Halprin had gained notoriety as one of the founders of post-modern dance, an art form that revealed the potential of any human movement as dance and any human being as a dancer. Under the direction of Anna Halprin, these performances would culminate in "Ceremony of Us," a concert dance production themed around the tensions of an interracial encounter between the collective of Black and White dancers, which took place on stage at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on February 27, 1969.

Shortly after his work with Ann Halprin, while on a return visit to Los Angeles in 1970, Melvino's "search" led him to cross paths with Michael Frimkess, a talented young ceramicist who quickly began to exchange ideas with him. Through the camaraderie of their friendship, Melvino solidified his foundation in ceramics assisting Michael in the stacking of kilns, building of workshop furniture, and gaining familiarity with glazes, clay bodies, and painting techniques. Still friends till this day, Melvino and Michael have collaborated for over 40 years. Over the course of their friendship, Melvino developed his signature style; a merging of particular three-dimensional shapes, adorned with abstract applications of colorful glazes. In addition, many of his creative decisions have been fueled by what he recalls as "raw social energy" that he had witnessed as a youth in Compton, watching the entrepreneurship of family-run businesses such as his father's dry-cleaners and his aunts' collections of African-American regalia that included a variety of multi-cultural keepsakes. The search for Melvino Garretti, then and now, is attached to something that he says is "left over" humanity retained in the discarded articles of a society; "that which is culturally relevant after all is said and done," as he calls it.

For Melvino, whose practice is rooted in indulging social exploration, the adventure of travel has remained an easy proposition for him to accept, the act of voyaging through various gathering places relates to his artist statement, a one-sentence credo that states, "I am an urban and sub-urban anthropologist, mimicking people, industry and products." His movements back and forth, from Los Angeles to Massachusetts, on occasion to New York, with returns to San Francisco and back to Los Angeles, have entailed a sourcing and re-sourcing of the societal information that his work thrives on, and the collaborative influence of engagements with various artists and mentors such as Michael Frimkess and his many Studio Watts collaborations.

After working at Great Barrington Pottery, Melvino left in search of a place to apply his newfound techniques. For a time, he worked at Ruby O'Burke's Clay Workshop, in the Noe Valley area of San Francisco. Eventually, through the suggestion of a friend, Garretti visited the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where he had originally considered studying plastics, which include vacuum forming, resins and fiberglass forms. While there, he was introduced to painter/instructor Julius Hatofsky, who left a strong impression on him and led him to join the school's <B>MFA</B> program as a painter instead. Melvino cites Hatofsky's as a mentor who taught him how to work from his own perspective and perception through his teachings that each artist views something as a result of where the artist is uniquely positioned.

Entering under the guise of a painter-turned-potter-turned-painter again, Garretti recalls SFAI mostly as a social space where he experimented with new materials, did performances, and began to layer the paint thicker. The aesthetic he had been developing as a potter before entering SFAI was filtered through constraints of ceramic glazing, a focus that lent well to his development of a gestural approach in applying paint to canvas. This methodology also coincided with the Bay Area's Figurative School of painting that greeted him at SFAI in the form of painters like Bruce McGaw.

Rather than illustrative attempts at precise replication, the figurative aspects of Melvino's drawings and paintings lean towards signage and are dedicated to the gesturing of forms as symbols. Even though he had been using oils on canvas rather than spray-paint or markers on walls or mass transit, many of the markings in his works are attuned to graffiti. Perhaps as confirmation, in the spring of 1978 a pair of works by Garretti were featured in a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) exhibition, entitled "Aesthetics of Graffiti."

The exhibition pre-dated a partial embrace of graffiti that would occur a short time later in the art world of the 1980s and presented graffiti in terms of its broadest effect as indication of human presence. Curated by Rolando Castellon, the group exhibition was an attempt to reveal the common thread of a graffiti aesthetic across various works by a wide variety of artists and included works from the museum's collection. It contextualized graffiti or perhaps better said, de-contextualized various works to expose a shared aesthetic of graffiti within them. Garretti's works in the exhibition included a black-and-white representational drawing on paper, entitled "Message to the Inner City".

At the time of the "Aesthetics of Graffiti" exhibition, Melvino was perhaps best known as both a painter and a performance artist, active in a set of exhibitions with a group of Bay Area artists under the name "Dirt to Monsoon." His return to Los Angeles a few years later in the early 80's represented a period of time in which he shifted away from performance works and made a strong return to ceramics. It is not uncommon for one of Garretti's acquaintances to know him as a ceramicist, unaware that for periods of time--some lasting years--that Melvino had taken breaks away from the clay to focus on painting. The reverse is true for some who have known Melvino as a painter rather than as a ceramicist.

A link between Garretti's paintings and ceramic works may exist within the lineage of "sculpted" paintings that Melvino has been creating for many decades--assemblages of fabrics adorned with unique patterns of paint three-dimensionally situated on hand-made stands. Garretti's applications of paint can be considered an extension of his "anthropological" stance in which he is leaving markings on the materials of society. At times these marks take the form of glazes applied to pottery. While at other times, they are applications of paint applied to the fabric of these garment structures.

Given his attention to materials that bear societal significance, it is not surprising that the search led Melvino Garretti to a major solo exhibition of works in 1984 that centered on the T-shirt as a "social" symbol. Through a set of mixed-media works, each focused on the t-shaped apparel, Garretti orchestrated a downplaying of fabric's utility as protective covering, preferring to shift the viewer's attention to its social significance as a medium for the sharing and exhibition of the wearer's mythologies. As a repetition of pivots between Los Angeles and locations elsewhere, the repertoire of nomadic movements that constituted Melvino's search leading up to the exhibition made the Los Angeles-based Brockman Gallery an ideal space for culmination of these works. The exhibition served as a means for him to expose what were then his latest "anthropological" findings, while also allowing him to work in the cross-section of painting, sculpture, and ceramics that he'd developed through his journeys.

This ability to gather multiple materials and ideas along the path of his search from one community to the next is a definitive element in Melvino's practice. Melvino Garretti's contributions to cultural archives include bits and pieces from various communities that he's stepped through, leaving trails of mud trekked in from various lush gardens across the floors of a mess hall, an occasional red carpet or artificial turf, and through cobble-stoned streets. The search is, of course, a figurative notion, a set of thoughts indexed to actions that do not always entail movement across geography. That is, the search is not measurable in terms of physical distances traveled, if measurable at all. The terrain of the search is a wide and expansive area of exploration conducted within, an inner dialogue with life, no less productive. Generally, the search for Melvino Garretti is the same as anyone else's.

If you were to ask him what the search means to him today, Melvino's response would likely be the same today as tomorrow. He'd first utter a statement like, "That depends ..." or a question like "What do you mean?" to methodically keep from being limited or boxed in by one's expectations, and then he'd utter a few more words free of calculation, improvised from experience. I wouldn't put it past him to be quick to tell you that he can't tell you what he is searching for and then, optimistically, tell you that he only knows that his search is not over. I called Melvino a few mornings ago. He was double-parked on a street near Venice Beach and in the process of transporting a bundle of ceramic pieces to a friend's kiln for firing. As he made his exit off the phone, he told me that at that moment the search for Melvino Garretti was simply for a good parking space.

Caption: Over the Couch Symbols of Measurement, Fabric and oils 36" x 48"

Caption: Bite of the Temple, Fabric and oils 26" x 32"

Caption: The Visitor, Acrylic on canvas, 54 1/2" x 69"

Caption: Untitled, Fabric and oils 52" x 72"

Caption: I Don't Know But it's my Companion, 36" x 48"

Caption: I Cave A Shoulder to Power, Fabric and oils 43"x 63"

Caption: Paper fabrics acrylics 4" x 10" x 16" x 12"

Caption: Untitled, Paper fabric acrylics 7 x 9 x 15

Caption: Ceramic 11" x 6" x 9"

Caption: Message to the inner City, (detail) 1977 Mixed media on paper 35" x 46"

Caption: Untitled, Ceramic rectangular temple jar, 17" x 15" x 3"

Caption: Traveling With A Sucker Mask Ceramic, 12" x 15"

Caption: Untitled, Mask 1, Ceramic and fabric 14" x 22"

Caption: Untitled, Mask 2, Ceramic & fabric, 16" x 22"

Caption: Hitting Behind the Head Acrylic on paper, 22" x 18"

Caption: You Heard it Through the Grapevine, Ceramics, Installation, POST, Los Angeles, CA

Caption: Aliens Were Astronauts, Installation, POST, Los Angeles, CA

Caption: Aliens Were Astronauts, Installation, POST, Los Angeles, CA
COPYRIGHT 2017 Institute of African-American Affairs (IAAA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:VISUAL ARTS
Author:Ukwuoma, Ezennwa
Publication:Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2017
Previous Article:Study for a Massacre.
Next Article:Even the Dirt Under Their Feet Is Not the Same.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |