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'RECAP' reveals the complex, generous spirit of artist Mel Chin

By Barbara Schreiber

When Mel Chin was in residence at McColl Center for Visual Art earlier this year, he touched Charlotteans with his commitment to social justice, his warmth and the curious work emanating from his studio.

His residency focused on the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, a community-oriented effort that brings to light and seeks solutions to the tragedy of childhood lead poisoning.

In “RECAP,” his current exhibition at McColl, one gallery is devoted to this project – explaining it; displaying fanciful tools and artifacts; and providing an inviting space for visitors to create their own Fundreds.

The rest of the space is consumed by the sort of work Chin does when not immersed in this cause – art created alone or with collaborators and exhibited at museums and galleries throughout the world.

Born in Houston in 1951, Chin spent time in New York and Athens, Ga., before settling near Burnsville.

In much of his work, he breaks down complex issues and makes them more comprehensible. He trusts his audience and is never patronizing or preachy.

“RECAP” includes projects that can be understood with little guidance and those that you'll need the wall texts to fully understand – but they all deliver a big dose of unease, usually leavened with humor.

If you haven't had much exposure to conceptual art this is a good place to start, because even the most challenging work is generous in spirit and accessible on some level.

“Cabinet of Craving” is a 14-foot-tall spider whose body is a curio cabinet that houses an antique tea seat. The title is a play on cabinets of curiosities, the collections of exotica found in homes of the wealthy during the Renaissance.

As the delivery system for delicate objects, the enormous spider represents the ugliness that is often required for nice people to have nice things.

Although this sculpture includes specific references to Victorian England and the Opium Wars, it can easily be generalized to refer to contemporary goods made with sweatshop labor.

Tucked in an alcove is “9-11/9-11,” the award-winning 24-minute hand-drawn animation that Chin wrote and directed.

Interweaving personal stories from 9-11 and the 1973 US-backed coup against Chilean President Salvador Allende, this film depicts a world of shattered ideals in which everyone– whether patriotic, revolutionary, or indifferent – is victimized with equal ferocity and disregard.

“Unauthorized Collaborations” are abandoned family portraits Chin found on eBay and through other sources.

Chin takes these sad family heirlooms, which have been stripped of their history, and remakes them through cutting and collaging to create new stories of power struggles and abuse.

An installation of kitchen appliances and fixtures that have been transformed into useless objects and Freudian jokes is the most enigmatic, yet funniest, work in the show.

If you're not already familiar with Mel Chin, “RECAP” may seem a bit bewildering at first because the range is so great – collaborations, solo projects, serious, clever, educational – among just a few bodies of work.

Visually, there isn't signature style, but there is a signature commitment to sharing beliefs with clarity and honesty, using whatever means necessary.

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