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Mike Mellia's American Dream

Barbie pink and psychiatric green in an exhibition on perfection and perversity

by James Thorne
on 21 March 2013

"I am interested in exploring a fine art approach to advertising, and an advertising approach to fine art," says photographer Mike Mellia. His latest show, "The American Dream," explores the poles of perfection and perversity in society at large. A series of portraits and still lifes, the images bear a likeness to Mellia's other work in advertising. Glossy and glorified, the somber messaging falls even harder as the viewer finds that these subjects have been duped—along with the rest of us—into following a false dream.


For "The American Dream," Mellia creates contrast between the content and the color scheme, which the artist defines as "Barbie pink" and "psychiatric green." Happy-go-lucky first impressions are ultimately trounced by a melancholy finish. "After an entire life of pursuing the American dream, he appears lounging sideways on a couch like an ancient Roman over-indulging on a banquet," says Mellia of the old man in his portrait "Breadcrumbs for the Birds." Balancing out the old man's exhaustion is another portrait featuring the shocked and fearful eyes of a young boy in school clothes.


Topics like gun control, healthcare and education are remorselessly set up in the series through still lifes of smart phone syringes, do-or-die math quizzes and a murderous octopus. Mellia wanted something of a correlation between the still lifes and the portraits, a relationship he likens to an advertisement and its victim. "I liked the idea of having the still lifes represent philosophical ideals, while the portraits became the physical incarnations of those ideals in Americans today," he explains. As someone who makes his livelihood on advertising, however, Mellia seems to recognize his contradictory role in the whole scheme. "The paradox behind all of this art is: is glossy perfection required to advertise the message that...glossy perfection is not ideal for Americans?"


Mellia's previous photo series, "Monday Morning: Wall Street & America," looked at obese shoppers and Wall Street financiers. The shoppers—a mixed bag of manic and listless 400-pound models—shuffle from elation to depression in pursuit of consumer goods. Mellia's financial archetype finds distractions from trading in the form of pornography and poison throughout the day. In both, Mellia hones in on contradictions and hypocrisy that seem at once stylized and all too real.

"The American Dream" opens tonight, 21 March 2013 and runs through 18 April 2013 at Tapir Editions Gallery, 39 White Street in NYC.

Images by Mike Mellia

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