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Review: Rematch and More Greatest Hits

D. Eric Bookhardt on a pair of Mel Chin retrospectives at NOMA and Jonathan Ferrara Gallery

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After Hurricane Katrina, Mel Chin was a tireless advocate for New Orleans' youth. When he learned that lead — a neurotoxin linked to violent behavior — contaminated the soil of inner-city neighborhoods, the Houston-born, Chinese American conceptual artist launched Operation Paydirt, a community-based art campaign to obtain federal funding for soil remediation. Although the economic and political winds have been far from favorable, he keeps on trying. What we see in this Rematch retrospective at the New Orleans Museum of Art is the intriguing, if intricate, trajectory from his early surrealist-inspired objects to his later, far more expansive and scientific — if sometimes otherworldly — works dealing with the more pressing environmental and social issues facing America, all linked by his boundless curiosity.

Although most famous for major environmental efforts like his Revival Fields project that used plants to mitigate hazardous waste sites, Rematch for the first time comprehensively reveals how his works fit together. Here we see how his dreamy early sculptures inspired by Rene Magritte, Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp later influenced his subversively surreal props that appeared in the TV series Melrose Place, or how his early precisionist flair resurfaced in later sculptures like his surgical first aid kit concealed within the body of a Glock handgun. His endless curiosity is illustrated in 1992's Degrees of Paradise, pictured, featuring a tantric symbol of the heavens flanked by two triangular rooms, one with a ceiling photographically illustrating the ozone-depleted sky, the other with a custom woven Turkish rug based on satellite data.

The concurrent show at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery features wonders like his homage to surrealist sculptor Louise Bourgeois' iconic giant metal spiders — only Chin's version contains an ornate ceramic tea set housed in glass in its torso, symbolizing either the British empire's contribution to the globalization of civilization, or the opiate addictions it facilitated — take your pick.

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