Mel Deerson

with a text by Ben Bannan

11 July - 1 August, 2021

Videography by Ella Sowinska

I am sitting with Mel Deerson in this café drinking coffee. We chat about how scarcely pink is mentioned in Derek Jarman’s book of colour, Chroma (1994). Pink’s appearance in the chapter ‘Purple Passage’ is fleeting; Jarman’s main recollection of it is in textiles, jumping from Christ’s robe in Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection (1465), to the way that Valentino red tints pink in movies. Or flesh-coloured tights, and the shocking pink of Schiaparelli dresses. Relating the colour to his own history he writes, “at twenty I painted pictures in pink… was this a burgeoning of my sexuality?” (1) Within Jarman’s lifetime, the pink triangle would be reclaimed from its hurtful history: from Nazi gas chambers to a symbol of queer resistance and identity. In Mel’s work Pink (2021), the implications of the colour play out in personal and reflexive ways.

Pink is a video portrait of Mel through the gaze of her ex-lover, Ella. The hand-held footage documents a show-and-tell in the artist’s studio. Set in front of a painted wall covered with gestural strokes of soft pink with blocks of red, the artist inhabits various items of pink clothing while holding a wall hanging made from a bedsheet that replicates the painted studio wall. The camera is often tightly cropped and mediates our ability to locate a visual whole. This presentation of her textiles, which act more like props or scenography than artworks, results in a playful rapport between figure and ground. Within the wavering focus, coy limbs poke out from the frame of the fabric and chart the trajectory of a bashful body in the process of self-presentation.

The video opens unsteadily as the camera operator focuses the frame, “ok so…is this going?” The experience reads as a singular, pre-performative moment. Pink quickly unfolds to reveal that the imagery and script are discrete; Ella is filming, and Mel is speaking. In the first few frames of the film, the distinguished oral and corporeal recordings read as a sole experience. This schism—between audio and visual—asks us to consider, if only for a moment, the video as a practice of homosocial body swapping; Ella and Mel’s performativity built from the inhabitation of another’s gestures, and by default another’s physicality. (2) Over time the distinction between the portrait as seen through the lens of a lover, and the personal narrative added later by Mel becomes more evident. Both subjects are highly intimate and presented in tandem, as if we are peeping into a private moment between two people while reading a series of diary entries. Image and sound disorient time and space, one feeling embodied and present, the other sombre and reflective. Paired, they simultaneously rupture and suture two temporalities.

I think, almost everything I’ve made over the past few years has included someone who was a girlfriend, or an ex, or someone I’d kissed.

In Pink, and more broadly in Mel’s recent practice, the intimacy shared in a single moment or over several years is given the same agency. Through material dialogue we witness a relationship, many relationships, as an extension of a closeness that is distilled by the pictorial plane. In doing so, these forms of affection are mediated, and the vulnerability of artmaking forms its own relationships, in which I, the viewer, become implicated.

Mel shows me a picture of an ancient Roman interior. The red fresco has faded over time. It now echoes the pink hue of the artist’s own decorative interior. I think of Derek Jarman’s video portrait through colour, Blue (1993).(3) In its most cinematic form, Blue disperses across the surface of the screen and reflects itself back into the space of its projection. It casts the entire room, including the bodies of the viewers within it, in a swathe of colour. Mel’s video operates on a smaller scale. I don’t stumble upon it in a gallery screen space, I choose to play it on my laptop. A screen that connects me to my own lover.

Mel chose pink and red “because they’re not supposed to go together”. Is this estrangement because of their sameness? In her video the colours share a hard-edge border, they never bleed. But as a spectrum, pink and red persistently breach each other’s boundaries. This porous threshold extends to the materiality of Pink: proximities between figure and ground, subject and object, interior and exterior, all gesture towards transformations of the self that are rooted in the sprawling physical and emotional registers between the artist and another body.

In this case, many bodies. The artist, the lover, the screen, me. Pink bears witness to, and performs, something I might call, love.

(1) Derek Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Colour. New York: Overlook Press, 1994, 103.
(2) I was introduced to the phrase homosocial body swapping in Robert Cook’s curatorial statement for his exhibition of collection artworks That Seventies Feeling: The Late Modern, at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Cook offered a poem by Adelaide-based poet Ken Bolton to prompt new, different, and personal considerations of the artworks in the exhibition, such as the explicitly Jackson Pollock– inspired paintings of Dick Watkins and Sydney Ball.
(3) At the time of producing Blue, a film made of a singular monochrome colour field of International Klein Blue, Jarman’s vision was disintegrating from a culmination of AIDS and treatment-related side effects. The film’s abstract aesthetic appears to represent Jarman’s experience of going blind. Blue becomes a crisis of vision for the body of the viewer, as they inhabit a body with a vision crisis.