"It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars"
~ Garrison Keillor
Ted Meyer creates exuberant, colorful paintings of human figures in vaguely orgiastic groups – but it is his exploration of pain and its aftermath that may be his most intriguing work. A chance encounter with a woman in a wheelchair inspired him to explore body issues by making prints of scars caused by serious injury or illness and subsequent surgery. A youth spent in continuous, unrelieved pain also informs a body of work that is appealing both for its formal graphic qualities and the visceral reaction provoked by being confronted with evidence of a disturbing wound. He inks the scars and does direct transfer prints and displays them with a photo of the subject and a short text that describes the nature of the injury or operation that created the scar. As soon as he started showing this work he knew he had touched a nerve in our body-image conscious society because of the surprising number of people who approached him with their own scar stories.
When his prints were shown at the National Museum of Health and Medicine at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., a New York Times story on his work generated an outpouring of personal tales from wounded survivors of various trauma around the world, among them the victim of a machete attack in Somalia and a Californian who had been bitten by a shark while surfing in Australia. Most gratifying to Meyer, however, was the reaction of the veterans of the war in Iraq who were recuperating at Walter Reed and who thanked him for helping them to see their scars as something other than the stigma of combat.
Meyer lives in a spacious loft in the main building at The Brewery near downtown L.A. He shares the space with several cats, one of which, oddly yet appropriately, is a partial amputee. Most of his well-structured paintings have the color and exuberance of Matisse’s Dance. His early works, however, are quite different. They show monochromatic, almost skeletal figures that seem trapped in coffin-like enclosures that force them to bend and contort to fit in the narrow space. We asked Meyer to explain how and why his work had evolved and how he came to explore the nature of scars:
“I was born with Gaucher’s disease. It’s an enzyme deficiency that caused a lot of joint pain and bone deterioration. I spent a lot of time in the hospital when I was a child and I did a lot of my early art work there. As a result I think I’ve always been very comfortable doing work based on body form, especially imperfect body form and showing pain and struggle. So early on my paintings were very much focused on me, on my inner narrative and what was going on with me physically. I had severe bone pain and I felt very trapped by my situation, I was always in pain—so I depicted that."
“I studied graphics but I had never painted. Then one Christmas a girlfriend gave me a paint set and said, ‘you keep telling me you’re an artist, paint something.’ This was a little bit before my surgeries. I was 32. I had my joints replaced and around the same time they came up with a treatment that alleviated some of the side effects of the illness and almost immediately, because of the sudden lack of pain, the first paintings I did after the operation were full bodies with skin on them that showed social interaction. They no longer showed a sole person locked in a shape.
So I started on a series of these multiple figures and this has been an ongoing series since about 1992. They’re a lot more colorful, they’re healthy-looking, and they’re interacting with each other and the environment as opposed to just being an isolated figure. The healthier I got, the more colorful and happy the paintings became and I really wasn’t doing artwork about illness any more. Then I moved to New York from Los Angeles and I went to an art opening and I see this girl in a wheelchair roll into the gallery. I was immediately taken with her – not just because she was very pretty but her whole attitude of who-gives-a-shit-that-I’m-in-a-wheelchair and she’s an actress and she’s still dancing with a dance company even though she’s still in a wheelchair. Eventually we would have a lot of conversations about doing artwork. She kept saying ‘You still have to do artwork about illness and mobility issues.’"
“There was one night when we were sitting in her house and she pulled out a little bag of clips and these were the clips that had been in her back after her operation. She had had a rod put in after her back was broken and after a while they were uncomfortable so they took them out. So I’m holding these clips that had been inside her body for some time and we’re having this whole conversation and I’m thinking, ‘Well, I really have nothing left to say about my illness, maybe I should start doing work about other people’s illnesses.’ That’s how the whole scar thing started. I did a print of her back, showed it at the first art walk after I moved to the Brewery and people immediately started coming up to me and saying, ‘Here, let me show you MY scar and let me tell you my story.’ So by the second art walk I had about seven scars up and then the next one I had about fifteen and now I’m up to fifty or so."
“The project has developed more than just the visual aspect of it to sort of like this Studs Terkel documentary process. People kept asking for more and more about it. They wanted to know where on the body a particular scar was, so I added diagrams. They wanted to know how did the person get injured, so I went back and got everybody’s story. Then they wanted to see the people, so I started photographing the people with the ink on them. So now for each person I have a whole history. It‘s pretty amazing. The last time I showed them, which was down at the 18th Street Art Complex, there was a woman who came in with stage four brain cancer, took off her hat and pointed her head at me with this big scar and asked, ‘Can we do this now? I don’t know how much longer I have to live?’ So she showed up the next day and we printed her head."
“What’s interesting is, my paintings are pretty and people buy them for their house. But these are the ones (the scar prints) to which everyone relates. Sometimes they start crying because it’s the same scar of someone they knew who died. I try not to make them too literal. A long time ago I was working for an after-school program in San Diego and we hired this woman to come in and she did Japanese fish prints and I keep thinking of those prints because I didn’t want to just take photographs of scars. To a certain extent, I wanted to take the ‘ick’ factor out of it so that when you first look at them they are studies in color and line and then you might get in closer and discover, ‘oh, this is a tracheotomy’ or ‘this is a suicide attempt.’ So they start off having artistic, visual meaning and then once you get into them they have a whole different narrative.”
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There’s death. There are the things that lead to it. Then there are the things that compel us to analyze it. In the photo series “It’s Alright Ma, it’s only Witchcraft” Jesus Leon explores the concept, and the results, of Witchcraft.
Jesus has immersed himself in a world that explores the human condition as experienced via the hearts, minds and souls of a certain religious subset of, in this case, Mexico. In this syncretic world, there is no correlation to morbid curiosity. To the people of this community these rituals are simply a matter of necessity, even obligation.
In this series, however, no performance was captured. Not that we would expect such a private event to be available for documentation, but there was an option. Additionally, Jesus’ photos are devoid of stereotypical witchcraft symbolism, avoiding cliché and the glorification of the occult.
What Jesus has presented to us is drenched in metaphor…
Citizen LA: You chose not to document the event itself, the ceremony, or the spectacle.
Jesus: My photos contain the leftovers of Santeria, of Witchcraft. I live in a neighborhood where one can see throatless chickens and rituals of witchcraft along the streets, including animals used in sacrifices. My photos capture the end of the party, the after-party… I believe.
Citizen LA: The after-party?? I didn’t know there was a “party” associated with witchcraft. Hmm.
Jesus: It is a combination. Somewhere between post-party-witchcraft and… trash.
Citizen LA: I have to think about THAT one.
Jesus: Yes. Hahaha.
Citizen LA: So how did you come up with the idea? Did it come from one photograph? Or was it well thought out before?
Jesus: For 10 years I have been taking these photographs. It’s about the night. The photos are only taken at night. At dawn. During the parties. Everything that happens at the parties. And after the parties. The leftovers. The Human Remains. Everything. All that I find.
Citizen LA: I notice a certain look in the eyes of the subjects, even in the animals. You know when you look a certain people and their eyes are, like, dead? It’s empathetic and ominous; almost, as if, a warning.
Jesus: Yes, absolutely, the show is designed with the eyes in mind. I chose the photos for the “gaze”. Even the animals.
Citizen LA: What’s interesting is that two things are happening. First, with THAT stare, those captured in the photo are sharing something with YOU as the photographer. And second, the photos are sharing something with US the audience. It’s like a gift. A dark creepy gift.
Jesus: I love that idea.
Citizen LA: Strangely enough the morbidity is the first thing that you notice but then you realize it’s not morbid at all. It’s almost wonderful, special, a very unique opportunity to experience something.
Jesus: To me it’s about the calm. Not relaxed or tired, but a calmness. Especially in the picture of the funeral home, it’s a very special print.
Citizen LA: Do you think that the “calm” comes from acceptance?
Jesus: Accepting the inevitable.
Citizen LA: First there’s denial, then we go through all these emotions, and finally we accept it; our situation.
Citizen LA: These photos are taken very quickly.
Jesus: Like snap-shots, yeah.
Citizen LA: Bresson was a master of the moment. And you’re capturing a moment. A moment that may test the patience of some… their ability to absorb what’s beyond the graphic imagery.
Jesus: I hope they see more than just the moment. One of the photographers that have influenced me most is Weegee, the disasters, the things that only happen at night. That kind of thing. That’s what interests me.
Citizen LA: I get very emotionally attached to what I shoot. It’s my life. What you are shooting, I can only assume that it is part of your life. Not that you WANT this to be your life… it IS your life.
Jesus: You have to be completely immersed, in your lifestyle, with your people, within your atmosphere. I do not see it any other way either.
Citizen LA: How do you distance yourself from what you’re shooting? Or do you distance yourself? Or have you already surpassed the tragedy?
Jesus: Not all the time. I think it’s about tragedy, and the beauty comes after that. Very much after that. It is too intense to see anything other than what is happening at the moment I am taking the photo. After, I re-evaluate it or perhaps see something more interesting or beautiful. Yes it affects me very much.
Citizen LA: The reason that I ask is because there is one form of documentation where, as a journalist, you go in, you capture and you leave.
Jesus: Yes, I can’t do that.
Citizen LA: Then there are the situations where you become part of the environment. And, in turn, affect the environment actively. I find it very admirable, very brave. Not that you go out at night. Not that brevity. But the brave where you are allowing this to affect your life.
Jesus: I tried to separate myself a little, but it’s almost impossible to be separated from the subject and the atmosphere.
The images that comprise the “It’s Alright Ma, it’s only Witchcraft” series emanate from deeply embedded cultural beliefs found in the Santería religion. At its worst we imagine a priest waving a chicken over his head; at best we hope that all forms of life are respected during the ritualistic ceremonies.
According to Jesus Leon, the nightly expeditions and subsequent documentation provide evidence that the common-practice ceremony may officially end, but in the dark alleys and byways of certain Mexican barrios the after-party is just getting started.
Can I get a “Thank you Jesus”?
When I heard that Rony was on his way to Mexico City to survey the “scene”, I thought it a good idea to make myself available. It had been a few years since we interviewed him and I was aware that he had a photography show in the works. Rony trusted me enough to send over a PDF of his photo book which contained many of the new unreleased photos that he was pitching & promoting. The photos were classic Rony: sexy & risky.
One Thursday night I caught up with him at a VICE Gallery opening in Colonia Roma Norte; an old neighborhood in Mexico City which is undergoing a cultural revitalization. Rony flew in from LA with Trevor (a.k.a. DJ Skeet, Dim Mak Records) and made his entrance with an entourage of adorable girls.
Rony meandered to the gallery bar, lifted a shot and sipped it. I had one as well. Delicious. Minutes later we returned to the bar. Not surprisingly, the free Mescal was gone. I reached inside my coat, pulled out a metal flask and offered Rony a sip.
Citizen LA: Tequila??
Rony Alwin: Naw. It’s all about Mescal tonight.
(CUT TO STREET)
After making our way around the well curated VICE show, we headed-off to an American influenced eatery, Volver, for a bite and a brew. On the way, Rony snaps away on his Canon while relentlessly plastering everything in sight with stickers that read: RONY’S PHOTO BOOTH. Shameless promotion.
Rony mentions Tijuana…
Citizen LA: Ouch. So your first experience in Mexico was in TJ?
Rony Alwin: My European family came to visit and they wanted to see Mexico, so we took them to TJ. Unfortunately, Tijuana is the worst first impression of Mexico you could ever have. Seriously. It’s fun but, it has its problems.
Citizen LA: How does Mexico City compare to Tijuana?
Rony Alwin: Mexico City is like LA and New York… but Mexican. Hahaha. TJ is, well, TJ. There is no comparison.
Citizen LA: How has Rony’s Photo Booth progressed over the years?
Rony Alwin: Same thing… more money! When I started, it was just me and a little camera. I didn’t even have a website. Now there’s a team, and it’s all business.
Citizen LA: So you’ve come here to take over Mexico?
Rony Alwin: I’m networking on this trip… and tagging along with Trevor. I’ll be done with my new photo show soon. It’s called “Cute”.
Citizen LA: How do you feel your photography will be received here in Mexico?
Rony Alwin: I went to Tokyo last November to show my book. I wasn’t aware that all the nudes would be so… hmm… controversial. Here in Mexico, you walk down the street and see suggestive photographs of sexy women on newsstands everywhere. Not like I’m shooting porn, but all my new work is pretty much nude girls. I think they’ll like it… I hope they’ll like it. Hahaha.
(BACK TO STREET)
The entourage has now grown to 9 people as we move to a bar down the street. The neighborhood of Roma Norte has an uncanny resemblance to Downtown LA. It’s a similar pattern: roll-up door, graffiti, roll-up door, pristine restaurant, graffiti, roll-up door, roll-up door, edgy art gallery, roll-up door, graffiti, graffiti, super-hip bar, roll-up door…
As our motley crew continues its crawl, one in the group invites us to his place. Rodrigo Maceda apparently owns one of the hippest mixological establishments in Mexico. Licoreria Limantour is a well-designed watering hole that is known for its stellar cocktails. Rodrigo immediately sets the group up with a round of drinks. The sliced limes arrive, on fire.
The interview continues in-between shots…
Citizen LA: What I saw in your photo pitch book is not necessarily “explicit.” Visually it’s beautiful. Yes there are some breasts, whatever. But there’s a psychological element that hits a nerve. That’s what hit me. And that’s the nerve that’ll hit others.
Rony Alwin: I asked myself, ‘How crazy can I get?’ One girl. One outfit. One simple backdrop. If I shot it in black & white it might look something like a Richard Avedon photo, a traditional portrait. I was looking to make something sophisticated with a limited amount set of options. The result, I feel, is as visually complicated as one person standing there can get.
Citizen LA: The interesting thing is that you could have easily slipped in into pure “shock value”, but you didn’t go there.
Rony Alwin: People like Tony Kelly, Terry Richardson and David LaChapelle have borrowed ideas straight from the 70’s. It’s really easy to go there if you want a quick sell. Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin are my heroes.
(BACK TO STREET)
It’s then that we come to learn that Rony is not a fan of taking shots of liquor. So of course we torture him, and pressure him into taking another. Mexico City has its share of peer-pressure. We’re all heading for a rough morning, but no one cares.
Rony keeps snapping and I keep digging…
Citizen LA: At first glance, your new photo work is deceivingly one-dimensional. And then you step back for a second, and say, ‘Wait, there’s some serious shit going on here.’ What’s in your head is actually coming out. I truly see your brain all over those photos.
Rony Alwin: At the end of the day my photos are my fantasies. I’m lucky to find myself surrounded by those that share the same fantasies. The idea for the “Q” show is intentionally simple, but the next set will be complex. I’ll be working with depths, very 3D.
Citizen LA: A visual orgy perhaps?
Rony Alwin: LA is funny. It has the porn industry. You shoot one porn girl and you’ll get ten emails from other porn girls that want cool nice photos done. It’s kinda too weird. But it’s LA.
(BACK TO STREET)
After many rounds at Licoreria Limantour, our motley crew thins-out and the professional partiers continue to a super-secret afterhours called M.N.ROY. At the door, our guide flashes his member card and we all get in. Inside, Mexico’s hipster-elite fraternize. Awesome DJs. Handsome crowd. Very chic.
At 5 am we’re back on the street, flagging taxis. DJ Skeet needs his beauty rest for a gig he’s spinning in a few hours at some famous celebrity’s party. (Yawn.) Rony and DJ Skeet dip into a cab, towing two lady-friends in arm.
Hugs and a last thought…
Citizen LA: Let’s hope that Mexico can appreciate your risks, Rony.
Rony Alwin: Mexico is so open and free. Your walking around and there’s boobs & ass everywhere. It’s just totally normal. In American it’s forbidden. In the U.S. it’s like, ‘Don’t look at that.’ Here it’s like, ‘Look at that.’
Citizen LA: Sexy chicks? I’ll definitely look.
Rony’s new show “Q” coming soon to a Mexican town near you.
Also, if you’re in the neighborhood have a drink at:
[tlr] is a musical, pizza-skirt wearing elf with sharpie drawings on his toes and magic beans in his pocket. We first met on the street outside of the now defunct Mondo Video after my performance of Ēlektra which involved a kiddy pool full of spaghetti, boys in diapers, and lots of cleaning supplies (props of course, artists never clean). Taylor enjoyed the cacophony and was concerned for my safety after a rowdy “fan” nailed me in the face with an industrial trash bag full of beer bottles.
Charmed, we started emailing each other MP3s from our favorite bands, this quickly morphed into [tlr] sending his demo tracks and song ideas, sometimes new material every day. His drive to write and record was inspiring, and his production skills leaped forward in complexity of sounds and technique. Now his first solo offering, NVR NDR, nears completion, and electroheads, rave nerds and fantasy buffs swoon in unison.
Marianne Williams: What’s your favorite thing about “reality”?
[tlr]: The mystery. No one really knows what is going on, we are all part of this omni-paradox. It’s like a giant question mark floating in the air.
Marianne Williams: I find that making art and music can turn my fantasyland into reality. This is a little disorienting for me, ever have a similar experience?
[tlr]: I’ve always wanted to create my own reality and became obsessed with writing music when I discovered its powerful ability to communicate complex emotions and ideas that are extremely difficult to translate to any other medium. My goal is to forcibly transport the listener to the land of my imagination.
I used to wish that life was more like a fantasy adventure. Now I realize that life is the craziest, most twisted and bizarre adventure that anyone could ever come up with. Fact truly is stranger than fiction. Scarier too.
Marianne Williams: Tell us all about NVR–NDR.
[tlr]: NVR–NDR (pronounced “Never Ender”) is my attempt to portray life as I dream it should be, in a universe of my design. The aesthetics of NVR–NDR are inspired by my love of videogames, anime, and mythology. Musically, I am combining the high energy genres of hardcore rave music, videogame soundtracks, epic fantasy metal, and J-pop. I recently made up a goofy name for my new meta-genre: MAGICORE!
NVR–NDR is an electronic fantasy metal album that tells a story which is intentionally linear, in imitation of side-scrolling video games. The hero [tlr] is incarnated as the ultimate warrior in the realm of NVR–NDR, who has been separated from his eternal love and must battle his way through a variety of enemy entities. My dream is to create animated music videos to every song and re-release the album as a musical film project.
Marianne Williams: Are you collaborating with other musicians?
[tlr]: I am fortunate to be working long distance with an amazing guitar player known as The Illuminist. People who have heard the guitar work he has recorded for NVR–NDR often don’t believe me that it is really a person playing. The album will have a lot of guest performances, including vocals by Ming & Ping, Johan Ess, and Cindergarden.
Marianne Williams: There’s a strong visual element to NVR–NDR, and you also produce visual art.
[tlr]: NVR-NDR’s visual aesthetic borrows from the organic mecha designs of shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and video games like Megaman X and Xenogears. I am also incorporating several somewhat nonsensical food memes, such as a impenetrable magical armor skirt made of pizza which is being constructed by Insidious Clothing.
I also like to “paint” visions of inter-dimensional beings on pieces of cardboard, usually pizza boxes. I call it painting, but it’s mostly a combination of sharpies, markers, and glitter glue. Then I pour water on them and burn them. Makes some interesting smells too. I am also fond of drawing patterns and symbols all over myself and my clothes with markers. Occasionally I make some digital art as well, I recently did the album cover art for Johan Ess’ “Synergy Latte”.
Marianne Williams: What was it like growing up in Alpine, CA?
[tlr]: I was home schooled with my 5 younger siblings. We were really the only kids in the neighborhood. My main social interaction was the martial arts classes I attended every night for 10 years. Growing up there without any other kids outside my family really instilled in me an appreciation for nature and the power of the imagination.
Marianne Williams: How has religion shaped your world view and creative practice?
[tlr]: My mother is a devout Catholic and my father is sort of an agnostic Jew. I was raised to believe in the invisible world of angels and demons. Mythology and religions were a major influence on my early art work and predisposed me to contemplate the meaning of life and the possibility of powers existing beyond the “real” world.
Marianne Williams: What are your current spiritual beliefs?
[tlr]: The one thing I feel certain of is the idea of infinity. It is my belief that no matter how far you zoom in, there will always be a smaller particle, and vice versa.
Marianne Williams: One thing I love about you and your music is a certain pure, childish energy. Is that intentional or are you totally unaware?
[tlr]: Children have a special connection with their imagination. They haven’t been beaten down by the drudgery and rules of day to day existence. I have always tried to keep that alive within myself. I once read somewhere that being silly actually keeps your brain in a nubile state, ready for more learning! How cool is that?
Marianne Williams: Upcoming shows?
[tlr]: My debut show for the NVR–NDR project will be March 27th at HM157 in Lincoln Heights. I can’t wait! I’ve got a lot of preparation to do still.
Marianne Williams: Do you have any multi-media or special surprises planned for your live set?
[tlr]: The live show will feature beings from the NVR–NDR world manifested in this reality. Hopefully lasers and bubbles and dancing also.
Marianne Williams: Finally, are you willing to explain your secret abbreviations language to the masses?
[tlr]: When I was in high school I started using a form of short hand to take notes faster. I love the aesthetic of not using vowels. I also think of it as a reference to my Hebrew ancestry, as ancient Hebrew writing did not use vowels.
For more info on [tlr] www.nvr-ndr.com
Renowned for her High Fashion Crime Scenes series shown at Ace Gallery in May 2005, fine arts photographer Melanie Pullen hopes to replicate that show’s success with The War Project, a new exhibition at Ace Beverly Hills. A self taught photographer who cut her teeth working for assorted music magazines and record labels shooting bands, Melanie has defied the stolid pecking order and nepotism of LA’s art scene to become an internationally recognized artist. Testament to her success is a hardcover book published by Nazraeli Press, featuring over 100 of her photographs.
Craig Stephens: What’s the new series about?
Melanie Pullen: The War Project is a very dark yet kind of playful series that deals with battle and war. I love Dr. Strangelove and am toying around with this sensibility. I’ve been working with award winning costumers to achieve accuracy. I’m doing a modern version of what you’re bombarded with when touring the Louvre, a lot of the early painters would cast male models – sometimes hundreds to mock-up faux battle scenes to paint. Part one is a series of portraits of male models that I have cast as soldiers and warriors. Part two is the Battle Scenes, which reconstructs battle scenes with up to 100 male models.
Craig: Isn’t this glamorizing war imagery?
Melanie: This series is about playing with this innate glamorization and how it changes our view of history. It’s very rare that we get to view historic images that aren’t glamorized to some extent – even dating back to war portraiture and the great paintings that depict war. It’s very interesting when you look at it from this angle and try to stay very removed from expressing your political views; it becomes something very surreal. There’s also this constant intermingling of fact and fiction throughout art and media. When I do introduce violence in this series, which I go into greatly, it’s very stylized.
Craig: What research/inspiration did you use for this series?
Melanie: I’m very inspired by the great historic paintings, portraiture and early photojournalism that portray war in a much more fantastical and glamorous manner such as: Jacques-Louis David’s, “Oath of the Horatii”; Delacroix most famous painting: “La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple”; Rembrandt’s, “The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq”; Jacques-Louis David, “The Intervention of the Sabine Women”; and Nicolas Poussin’s, “Tancred and Erminia”. I love the reality of Ernest Meissonier’s, “The Barricade, Rue de la Mortellerie”; and then the fantasy of Charles Le Brun’s, “Alexander in Babylon.”
Craig: You utilized and constructed some very elaborate sets for the new series, correct?
Melanie: I worked with New Deal Studios on a sound stage in Santa Monica. They built a set exclusively for my War Project. It’s a massive endeavor taking almost one month to build and several days to shoot.
Other images have been shot in my studio (the soldier portraits), most of the images in the series are set up, set designed, fully staged and produced. I’m constructing a surreal movie like quality.
In terms of set and costume designers and make-up artists I have worked with people who have set designed for the films including The Aviator, Batman, and Terminator. My makeup artists have worked with Saul Gallegos, Geoffrey Rodriguez, and Yiotis Panayiotou. I have also used long time costumer Ivan Marquez, and celebrity Costumers/ Stylist Lauren Reichenberg.
Craig: In terms of the new series’ elaborate costuming, is it revisiting the high fashion aesthetic present in the first series?
Melanie: For the Military uniforms it’s more about the style dating back to the earliest combat. It’s amazing looking into how men dress to kill – the way that people will adorn themselves in such lavish clothing to be remembered. For civilian clothing I’m working with both current and vintage designer clothing such as vintage Gucci, and Westwood. Current designers include: Nina Ricci and Prada. Ultimately I do love the fashion element however, I’m dealing entirely with history and the historic uniforms have yet to be outdone.
Craig: Did you study the work of war photographers in preparation for the series?
Melanie: Yes, Philip Jones Griffiths, Robert Capa, Catherine Leroy, George Silk, Lee Miller, Matthew Brady, to name just a few. I’ve also worked directly with the director of the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery, the Air and Space Museum and have traveled to view their extensive archives on multiple occasions to research this project. I always look for images that evoke a reaction in me, images that make me curious.
Craig: Why use handsome models for the series? Isn’t this again glamorizing the issue of war, twisting its pain and tragedy?
Melanie: One of the most iconic images that I can think of is W. Eugene Smith’s iconic image of the man smoking. This image was of an incredibly handsome man as a result he became the poster child for the man at war.
When I was trying to recreate these iconic moments in my work I was doing it with very ordinary looking people – for some reason I was unable to create iconic images. I finally realized that the iconic images I was trying to capture had the one thing in common: very handsome men! The second I started casting male models I started getting iconic images by the dozen…it was amazing.
For more information please visit:http://www.melaniepullen.com/
I never know who is going to be on the other end.
I pick up the phone and dial.
I ask to speak to Rony.
The voice on the other end makes me feel so relaxed, so at home. It is the voice of a surfer/skater, his inflection casual, laid back.
My first impression of Rony Alwin is that this is a guy who is really on top of his game. Every once in a while I meet someone who is so keyed in with what is happening, so on pointe. And that is Rony. But the best part is that he is so unassuming about it all, like he just stumbled into it. Here he is, having fun, going to parties, and somehow his photography is at 100+ on the coolness scale and just about everybody who is anybody wants a piece of this hot photographer. So who is Rony Alwin? He is a mellow cat, an understated dude. He is intense, thoughtful, smart, with an extremely discerning eye and a distinct vision. He also has a weakness for spinach lasagna and Indian food.
It seems that all of his time these days is devoted to preparing for the upcoming show at Phyllis Stein Art Gallery on September 11th. Alwin is prepping three different series for the show. Currently Alwin wades through hundreds of images from the pool in which he has made his splash. He is most known for his photobooth work. I ask Rony to fill me in.
A few years back, and fresh out of school, Rony bought a light kit and a Mamiya camera and started taking pictures for extra cash. “It’s a good thing I don’t live in Hollywood, I’d be partying every day.” And that is just what the photobooth work reflects, a party. The party. And Alwin’s the life of it these days. He sets up his light kit and captures the essence of what is happening. But there is something more here. Alwin has an eye. And with it, he captures a mode, a feeling. A look through his lens awakens the voyeur in me. And that is what makes his work move from simple documentation to something more.
Looking at the work in the Bad Kitty series, I feel just a bit like I’m seeing something I shouldn’t. I feel as though I am peeping into a world that is at once naughty and innocent: a juxtaposition of worlds. It all started when Rony’s girlfriend Lauren, an American Apparel model, was over with a few friends. They started taking pictures for fun, and the Bad Kitties were born. The Bad Kitty work showcases young female models engaging in a sort of contemporary pin up circumstance.
There’s an innocence in the mood of the work, but at the same time there is a sophistication to the visual. It looks a bit like someone’s sister is playing naughty. That is what is so contrastingly appealing and haunting about the series. The models are just slightly awkward and mistakenly sexy. And this feeds into that “oops, I’m seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing.”
Well apparently I am not the only one who wants to play with the cats. Rony and two of the Bad Kitty girls, Lauren and Audrey, just got back from a whirlwind tour with Beauty Bar. How did this happen?
Rony is just like that.
I told you.
He’s in the right place at the right time, and he can’t help it. He stumbles into coolness, as if by accident.
Most of June and July were filled up touring Beauty Bars in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Las Vegas and New York. Some nights in the Beauty Bar tour Rony had both the Bad Kitty and the photobooth set up, other times it was just one or the other. And then there were times when the party would get so crazy and packed they had to take it all down.
Rony Alwin isn’t just the life of the party, he is the party.
As if this weren’t enough, Rony is about to show some of his newest work, The Road Trip series. On the way to a photobooth gig at SXSW in Austin, followed by another in Miami, Rony and Lauren pile into the car and head across the United States. Shooting what Rony calls “American weird stuff,” his lens is pointed in a new direction. So what exactly is this, “weird stuff?”
This is where our conversation turns a corner. And I totally get it. Rony is a visual artist. He knows how to say things in images. But I kept trying to get him to describe it in words. Our conversation crumbled about here, falling into in bits and pieces. Juicy morsels of ideas are floating tangents of thought. Alwin struggles to explain in words what he so eloquently says in the visual.
Here’s a bit of a wander into Alwin’s thoughts, a steam-of-consciousness unfolding, as he describes American weirdness:
“You travel around America and there’s an abandoned building next to a brand new Starbucks. Or Graceland. What Elvis did is so American. Graceland is next to a chicken wings outlet. And then Vegas is so weird because you’ll have a billion dollar casino and next to it is a dirt lot. If someone finds something beautiful, it will become such an attraction that they’ll put a mall next to it and it’s not beautiful anymore. There’s a mall on the border of Mexico and the US and the fence is in the parking lot.”
I completely follow where he was going with these ideas. It sounds a bit to me like a fascination with the juxtaposition of opposites co-existing; while at the same time they are happily annihilating one another.
In the midst of all this work, Alwin still finds time for his biggest luxury, going out to eat. And he is quite the connoisseur of Easterly eateries. It is here in our phone conversation that we truly bond. I love me some good food. And like Rony, if I never have to go west of La Brea, I’ll be the happiest girl in the ‘hood. Rony tells me he lives on the Eastside.
“Me too,” I say, “in Atwater Village.”
“There’s an Indian Restaurant that I keep going back to there,” he tells me, “but the food’s not so good.”
I have to laugh. And share the joke. I tell Rony that I’ve never been to the Indian place, but that I almost went there on a first date with a guy I met at a party. I don’t know, something told me that this guy wasn’t the one for me, so I cancelled.
“Wise choice,” Rony tells me. “I don’t even think that there’s a metal fork in the place. It’s a little like a cafeteria.”
Nice. I almost went on a date to a cafeteria.
Good thing I trust my intuition.
So what else can I trust these days? Well according to Rony, I can trust the spinach lasagna at Colombo’s in Eagle Rock. I can trust Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon and of course, American weirdness.