Dean Melbourne’s paintings are invitations into secret, forgotten and imagined places, places where nature runs wild and people live at the very edges of life. Harking back to more ancient times imbued with magic, mystery and urgency, his paintings uncover many of the pleasures that we have long repressed: the exhilaration of the night, hot fire, soft flesh, the emotional power of a forest. The paintings reconnect us with these most primal of experiences.
An inky, inviting blackness exists within many of Melbourne’s most recent works. Within these unknown spaces naked figures and more ambiguous forms glow in the darkness. Before the night is through (Whole Lotta Love), for instance, contains a fleshy distortion, amorphous, with waxy skin not unlike Berlinde de Bruyckere’s sculptures, if her strange bodily assemblages were translated via the viscosity and gloss of oil paint. In Melbourne’s painting the flesh form is twisted, lumpen and moulded through the paint’s own materiality, recalling too Francis Bacon’s tortured bodies made from the same substance. Toes, a line hair, a fringe of eyelashes and the curve of buttocks can just be made out in Melbourne’s painting, framed within a web of foliage: coagulated bodies vibrating in the darkness of the forest. Violence and sex are the primary functions of the characters that dwell within these strange places, far removed from behaviours usually acceptable to polite society. The figures are frequently hidden by branches and other bodies, partially glimpsed and almost always contorted into odd positions. These are not classical nudes. Instead they are wilder bodies in the act of mysterious ritual. Looking at these paintings is an embodied sensuous encounter and as such, there is a need for the viewer to bring their own body and instincts to the act of looking, rather than only their eyes.
Forests reoccur within the paintings. Familiar settings in literature and Hollywood, the forests here though are not expansive or majestic but claustrophobic, occupying shallow spaces. These spaces stretch only as far as the flash of a camera in the darkness might. In The Night Of No Moon – Scene V fine tendrils and tiny leaves are illuminated in the darkness, a yellow curl of paint floats ethereally to the forest floor, but the viewer can barely see past these forms. These woods, these worlds, exist only upon the surface of the canvas, with virtually no depth beyond. The effect is similar to a stage backdrop that seems to extend space, requiring a suspension of disbelief from the viewer, or to computer graphics glitches in which three dimensional reeds and bushes are suddenly transformed into flickering structures as thin and flat as a sheet of paper. The artist’s dark painted places are complex, eerie and sensual; not epic landscapes but tight, controlling, illusory ones.
Other of Melbourne’s paintings are more evenly and brightly lit, and supersaturated with colour, for example The Garland I and The Welcome Party. Such works depict figures cavorting within luscious, utopian forests that bring to mind the paradise landscapes of Henri Rousseau’s paintings or Pipilotti Rist’s hyperreal video installations. The body and the landscape are fused together within Melbourne’s works in a delicate ecosystem, although it is unclear if these are on the verge of climax or collapse. Broken narratives and symbols without referents abound. Like the darker paintings, the trees in these brighter works are painterly suggestions of trees, loose brushstrokes forming a dream-like impression of a forest rather than a reproduction of reality. There is a clear sense that Melbourne’s paintings engage with ancient and primal ideas which, although often forgotten, remain internal and integral to each of us. His works seek to re-enchant our twenty-first century world by returning emphasis, with a nuanced handling of material and subject, to the magic and mystery of body, place, space, paint and the act of looking itself.