Richard Melloy’s Latest Work Is Equally Grotesque and Sublime

Richard Melloy is standing, fidgeting really, outside of N.W.I.P.A. in Southeast Portland at the opening of his latest show, The Way I See It. Despite the blistering midday heat, and the fact that he has a cache of cold beer behind the bar—good beer!—that he offers up freely to others, he himself isn’t drinking.

Doesn’t drink, actually.

But he does smoke. Which is what he’s doing while examining a small metal race car that’s palmed in his hand. Someone has spray-painted the entire car white, and painstakingly detailed it with her contact information, which she has handwritten with a ballpoint pen in tiny, shaky letters.

“A business car!” the 57-year-old Melloy beams, driving it up and down the length of my bare arm. “Now this…this is genius!”

The car is passed amongst a group of Melloy-enthusiasts, which includes a curious assortment of women who orbit him in pairs and trios, and a cadre of local artists fresh from their own gallery events. When the tiny ride makes its way over to the picnic table where Melloy and I now sit, he takes a photo of it with his phone. He turns to give me the business car and, seizing the opportunity to give me the business as well, gleefully shouts, “Look out! We all know women can’t drive!” At this bit of teasing, I raise the revs, dump the clutch, and slam second; and with smoking tires chirping across the table, I crash the car into a plate of empty oyster shells.

"Solitude #2" by Richard Melloy

“Solitude #2” by Richard Melloy

Ok, now stop. Rewind.

It’s a mere hour or so earlier, and I have never heard of Richard Melloy. I’m downtown, drifting through overly warm art galleries on the top floor of Pioneer Place. I take some notes. I eat some sweaty gallery cheese. I buy some prints, and then exit the building from a service elevator. Lingering just outside, swearing and squinting and smoking cigarettes, is the same group of artists that will later make their way to the N.W.I.P.A. show. I stand there wilting in the sun as they talk about art sales and alcohol, night jobs and blowjobs. Their discussion turns to other artists and closes with a debate in which they come to agree that Richard Melloy, whose name I add to my notes, is the best painter in Portland.

"Pray" by Richard Melloy

“Pray” by Richard Melloy

Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I didn’t know of Melloy, who has the reputation of being extremely private and guarded about his work. Back at his show, I’m told that no one has ever been inside his studio and that it’s rumored to be crammed with oil paintings he made decades ago. My mind races as I imagine hundreds of canvases, leaning haphazardly against one another under a layer of dust as thick as built-up dryer lint. I decide to risk it and ask if I can see the space sometime. Melloy unhesitatingly says no, and a few people nearby chuckle knowingly. He tells me the reason being that he is easily distracted, though not influenced, by the opinions of others. The latter is reinforced when I mention that the response to his work seems wholly positive, and he sharply—and Seussianly!—declares, “I do not care if you love my work! I do not care if you hate my work!”

He repeats this statement, maybe in case I wasn’t listening, and I’m suddenly struck by the theatricality of it all: the artwork, the reverential supporters, this weirdly interesting guy, who, practically shouting now, recites his mantra one last time.

"The Last Moment" by Richard Melloy

“The Last Moment” by Richard Melloy

The paintings on exhibit are as unpredictable and dramatic as Melloy himself—carefully constructed tableaux that are charmingly vulgar, equally grotesque and sublime. There are cartoony insects with skeletal limbs, a glaring turkey vulture that’s been picked clean, African women painted in a Renaissance style, and one big, benevolent bovine. The work reads like illustrations from a twisted children’s book, which makes sense, as Melloy is a seasoned graphic designer. Even the way the paintings take up wall space—some bunched uncomfortably close together, another framed in five separate pieces and arranged like a crucifix, others impossibly large in scale—seems to mimic the layout of a graphic novel. The story is clearly about Melloy (who has inserted his image into a few of the paintings), and it’s laced with tinges of anxiety and insecurity, longing and regret. The terror of hearing one’s clock slowly tick to a halt as the Grim Reaper patiently sits by with a cup of tea.

The Way I See It isn’t so much a statement as it is Melloy daring you to ask him, “Ok, how do you see it?” It’s a taunting riddle, one that can never be solved because I hazard it’s only Melloy’s own interpretation that he will concede as correct. Maybe he’ll share the answer with you. Maybe he won’t.

Either way, Richard Melloy definitely will not care if you love it, or hate it.

The show runs through August 15.

– Heather Bromer

Heather Bromer resides in Portland, Oregon. She received her MFA in Applied Craft + Design from both Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft. In 2012, she was awarded a year-long curatorial fellowship at PNCA’s Feldman Gallery. She maintains a studio practice and mentors undergraduate art students at R.A.D. Studio in Southeast Portland.