In one of his most famous works, 1991’s Revival Field, artist Mel Chin planted thlaspi, an herb known for its absorbent roots, at the Pig’s Eye Landfill Superfund site in St. Paul, Minnesota. The resulting plants were found to have high levels of cadmium in their leaves and stems, suggesting an organic way of extracting heavy metals from contaminated soil.
But it was also art—specifically, social practice art, a hybrid style that combines performance with art objects, usually as a way of commenting on sociopolitical issues. It’s a style popular with 20-something artists right now, though too often their works revolve, somewhat narcissistically, around the personality of the artist. Not so in the case of Chin, a Houston native who specialized in social practice art long before it was cool, as demonstrated by Mel Chin: Rematch, a major career retrospective organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art that will be spread across multiple Houston venues: the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; UH’s Blaffer Art Museum; Asia Society Texas Center; and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.
Born in the Fifth Ward in 1951, Chin is the son of Chinese immigrants who ran a neighborhood grocery store. And like his hometown, Chin’s work defies easy categorization. His website groups the artist’s works according to themes. “Politics” and “Ecology” are two of the more expected ones, but there are also sections like “Scientific Preoccupations,” “Mapping,” “Viral Methodology,” “From Dreams,” and “Esoteric Associations.” Chin’s oeuvre ranges from precisely detailed ink drawings, to inventive collages, to massive, surreal sculptures like the witty Manila Palm that stands guard over the CAMH. In the mid-1990s Chin was also part of the GALA Committee, a collective that inserted subversive props onto the set of the popular television show Melrose Place, one of which was a Chinese takeout container bearing slogans from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The show includes several of the Melrose Place props, along with hand-drawn diagrams Chin made in preparation for the Revival Field project.
Also featured is Chin’s Operation Paydirt, which originated in 2006 in New Orleans, where lead levels in the soil were shockingly high even before Hurricane Katrina. Research has shown that even small amounts of lead can affect brain development in children and cause learning disabilities, physical defects, and violent behavior. One part of the work, entitled Fundred Dollar Bill Project, consists of “dollars” hand-drawn by children and community members throughout the US and intended as a kind of symbolic restitution for lead poisoning. Six thousand pounds of hand-drawn currency are on view in the exhibition. “So far, more than a half a million people have drawn these things throughout the country,” Chin tells me. “They know that they are being poisoned by the environment they live in, they know they should try to make a difference, whether they are seven years old or 92 years old.”
Although he’s now an internationally renowned artist represented by the blue-chip Frederieke Taylor Gallery in New York, Chin rejects the idea of the artist as a solitary genius, or even as the sole creator of his works. “Once you engage with a community,” he says, “your piece is a collective.”
Mel Chin: Rematch
Asia Society Texas Center. Jan 17–April 19. Free. 1370 Southmore Blvd. 713-496-9901. asiasociety.org/texas
Blaffer Art Museum. Jan 17–March 21. Free. 120 Fine Arts Building, The University of Houston. 713-743-9521. blafferartmuseum.org
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston. Jan 16–April 19. Free. 5216 Montrose Blvd. 713-284-8250. camh.org
Station Museum of Contemporary Art. Opens Jan 17. Free. 1502 Alabama St. 713-529-6900. stationmuseum.com