Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted in Resource Library on November 2, 2006 with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the Quiddities exhibition atalogue, please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:


Melissa Zink: Quiddities

by Stephen Parks


Melissa Zink is a remarkable artist. Not only is she possessed of an array of great skills -- painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, and printmaking -- but she uses them in ever fresh combinations that spring from an incredibly rich mind, a mind enchanted by books.

It is books that for nearly 30 years have provided the central inspiration for her art. Her aim is to replicate what she thinks of as the book experience, that altered state of consciousness we enter when engrossed in a book. It's a state that's inflected by words and characters and plots, of course, but also by type faces and papers, bindings and illustrations.

Zink's work has always been striking, visually compelling and immaculately crafted, but never has it been as flat-out beautiful as the work she's creating now. An exhibition of her series, Quiddities: Precise Ambiguities within Interrupted Continuities, opens September 10 at Parks Gallery in Taos.

Quiddities are breathtakingly gorgeous. Gazing at them one feels in the presence of intoxicating beauty. How to explain the reaction? Partly it's the colors, the brilliant reds and blues. Never before has Zink's palette been so passionate. And the forms themselves are enchanted "things" -- objects, spirits, anthropomorphic magic. They're Zink's unique take on abstract surrealism, objects that could only exist on an ethereal plane.

"When you first see the paintings, I want you to think that you know what the objects are and then realize that you don't," Zink says. "I'm still dealing with elements of letters and words as I have for so long, but here they're suggested, more as texture and pattern than literal meaning. I want them to contain the richness and mystery that I associate with the reading experience. I want them to be beautiful and compelling."

As important to the Quiddities as the paintings are the 'frames' within which they're presented. In a daring and ingenious flip of focus, she has turned the peripheral nature of 'frames' into integral, sculptural objects which are the sculptural equivalents of the paintings. In her selection of frame fragments and their ecstatic arrangement, Zink creates moments of surprise and suspense and even humor. She composes an almost audible dialogue between the various colors, materials and styles of the fragments, and the dialog is continued and expanded in the relationship between sculpture/frame and painting.

As a young woman Zink had a frame shop. There she learned to use power tools and the skills of construction that have been so evident in her work for decades. Since then her art has seldom been framed in a conventional way. She's always searching for new ways to integrate a piece with its presentation.

Not surprisingly, as a framer she specialized in designing and building custom frames. "This was in the 1960s, at a time when strong architectural elements came into framing," she says. "Ever since I've believed that the importance of frames has been grossly underestimated. You can take anything -- a piece of string -- and make it beautiful with the right frame. In this new work I'm taking frames apart and reassembling them in different ways, creating three-dimensional objects that have an element of painting in them. I'm certainly not the first artist to make my own frames -- Whistler did it -- but I've never been quite so audacious about it before."

And Quiddity? "It means an odd little feature, an eccentricity," Zink says. "The second definition is 'the essential nature or ultimate form of something: what makes something to be the type of thing it is.' That seemed a perfect description of what I'm trying to do."

An encyclopedic reader since childhood, Zink has said that she prefers the book experience to the reality of everyday life. Fictional characters rarely disappoint her. Mysteries are revealed, the imagination is enflamed. Old books have a memorable grace. The touch and feel of leather bindings are transporting. The appearances of individual letters of the alphabet are as interesting and meaningful to her as the words they construe.

Zink first came to prominence in the late 1970s with monochromatic ceramic sculpture of narratives rendered in miniature scale. With titles like The (almost) True-to-Life Adventures of Gypsy Dog and Hattie Maxwilliam in Darkest Artland, the work often contained commentary on the art world and aesthetic experience. Over time she added color to the sculpture, and then two-dimensional painted elements found their way onto the walls of clay. Then text appeared. She experimented with dimensionality, creating sculptural wall-pieces that were really two-and-a-half dimensions, than for a short time extended the illustration to trompe l'oeil paintings. Back to sculpture, she substituted sticks for limbs in a remarkable series inspired by the opening lines of Dante's Inferno: Una selva obscura, in a dark wood.

Looking back, Zink is more aware of her pursuit of a singular subject matter than the array of styles and media. "I think it's always been about ideas and language, the shapes of letters and the impact of words," she says. "Some artists follow landscape all their lives. Language is my landscape."

Taos has had a great influence on the artist, even if its fabled landscape is never the subject of her work. "To live in New Mexico had been a dream of mine since childhood," she says. "I first visited Taos with my parents in the early forties. Returning to the bland landscape and architecture of Kansas City, Missouri was tantamount to being cast out of paradise. I still remember the tears of loss.

"In 1980 my husband and I were at last able to move to Taos, and the move proved to be as compelling as my original dream had been, a rare occurrence. Aside from the natural beauty of the landscape and the indigenous architecture, northern New Mexico is one of the very few places in the United States where being an artist is an ordinary occupation. Taos, especially, is a community where art is important both economically and socially. I don't think that New Mexico is visible in my work, but that doesn't indicate a lack of importance. Surrounded by beauty and nurtured by the culture, I have been able to concentrate on my inner landscape -- because of the gifts of this remarkable environment."

Zink, one of the foremost artists of New Mexico, has had more than 25 one-person exhibitions in museums and galleries across the country. In 2000 she was honored by Washington, D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts and in 2001 received the State of New Mexico's Governor's Award for Excellence and Achievement in the Arts. In Fall, 2006, the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos will stage a major show of her work.


About the exhibition

Quiddities was on view at Parks Gallery, 127 Bent Street in Taos, from September 10 through October 3, 2006. For more information or a catalog, contact the gallery at 505-751-0343 or parksgallery@newmex.com


About the author

Stephen Parks is owner of the Parks Gallery

Resource Library editor's note

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Margaret Bullock of the Harwood Museum for her help concerning the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy Melissa Zink: The Language of Enchantment (8/28/06)


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