Dr. Jeremy Melius Visits Campus to Discuss Minimalist Artist Bruce Nauman

Michelle Polyak, Staff Writer

Dr. Jeremy Melius, an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow from Johns Hopkins University, delivered a lecture titled “Flayed Earth: Flayed Self: Nauman’s Surface and Depth,” focused on Minimalist artist Bruce Nauman and his use of medium on Thursday, April 12. The title of this lecture comes from a Nauman exhibition at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in 1973.

Melius began by canonizing Nauman’s work, explaining that its essence is derived from an understanding of his medium. Nauman utilizes the human body literally and metaphorically in most works by extending the functionality of man through an alienation of its origin.

In Nauman’s 1967 video installation piece, “Art Make-Up,” Nauman films himself painting his body in three different colors. The video installation is comprised of Nauman looking at a mirror placed beside the camera. There is no formal eye contact between the audience and Nauman.

Nauman places four different screens in a square: three screens project projecting videos of him painting his body black, white and pink and the final screen shows him in his own natural skin. There is a loss of art-making’s sacredness in this work because there is also no assumption of art or material. Nauman utilizes his own body to investigate inner and outer surfaces. He tries to re-contextualize the function and utility of skin through his art.

Melius introduced theories from the 1960s by art critics and theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Hal Forster that illuminate the intent and effect of Nauman’s work on society as well as his contemporaries.

McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message.” Such an ideology is easily applicable to Nauman’s work, in which he physically alters his body to disseminate a message to the public. The concluding meaning of Nauman’s work is still up for interpretation, though Melius claims that Nauman does not explicitly address social and racial issues through “Art Make-Up.” While he did acknowledge a sense of social complicity in the artwork, Melius chooses to focus on a different interpretation of the work, using a psychoanalytic approach.

Melius excluded the social and racial implications of painting a body black or white and focused on the theoretical connotations of the performance. He circumvented the issues that are inherent in Nauman’s work by referencing McLuhan’s famed words. It is clear that the purpose of the talk was to inform the audience on duality of skin, an idea that Nauman commonly plays with.

This idea explains how skin functions as a space of containment, a functionality that develops only when skin interjects with the outside world. Moreover, Melius concentrated on Nauman’s interest in considering opposites and contradictory statements like the doubling of skin through tattoos, front versus back and inside versus outside.

By considering the approach of inside versus outside, Melius asserted that because Nauman’s video installations are shown in a room, they are inherently architectural. By enclosing the viewer inside of a space and confronting him or her with an image or video, the viewer has a unique experience of the practice of containment.