At an initial glance, there seem to be no parameters to Bjarne Melgaard's artistic practice beyond pure chaos and near-inflammatory imagery, the famed Norwegian artist boasts of solo shows at the Astrup Fearnley and Munch Museum and was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. From an enormous fiberglass sculpture of the Pink Panther smoking a meth pipe, a chair in the shape of a woman raising her legs for coitus, and dozens upon dozens of paintings of ghoulish figures with disheartening phrases like "Why Did You Go and Die," there is more at play than overwhelms the eye in Melgaard's Bushwick, Brooklyn studio.
Famously described as never having met "a taboo he didn't like to break" by art critic Roberta Smith, Melgaard simply creates what is on his mind without hesitation, a facet that ultimately fuses the absurd and psychotic with an intellectual backbone of political and cultural knowledge. He isn't the type of artist that toils over a singular idea, doubting himself until the idea is undone. He creates with prolific confidence. As contradictory as it may sound, Melgaard creates unrestrained, but highly calculated madness.
Known for being a relatively private man, whose occasional interviews are generally on the more succinct side, I was elated at an opportunity to go to Melgaard's studio on a recent rainy afternoon. Located at what seemed like your run-of-the-mill artist warehouse in Bushwick, I was more than shocked when I discovered that his studio occupied the entire 2nd floor of the already enormous warehouse, feeling more like a creative factory than a singular artist's studio. Perhaps more shocking than its sheer size were the contents of the space; two-thirds of the few thousand square feet were filled with a sea of mannequins covered in paint, glitter, and other craft-like materials, donning some of the most peculiar outfits I'd ever seen.
A jacket made of a pair of denim pants overlaid with a blanket of sorts with a woven image of, what I find out later, is the artist's own mother. A tank top lathered in paint, written with the message "Ready to Cum!" A mannequin covered in probably 50 different articles of layered clothing, with its chest exposed to show a t-shirt of a naked man squatting upon which is written "Introduction to Civil War," a poli-sci text written by the French philosophical journal Tiqqun. These endeavors are the result of a recent shift in Melgaard's practice from near-psychotic paintings and immersive installations to forms of fashion and clothing.
I soon meet the artist, after he concludes a meeting with his army of assistants regarding The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment , his show at the Red Bull Arts New York (formerly Red Bull Studios.) Melgaard may be nearing his 50s, but his hulking physique recalls his past as a virile bodybuilder. His grizzly, bearded face and the black leather bomber he dons further enforce an intimidating persona, but once we meet one another, a soft-spoken, patient voice reveals a different figure entirely.
About a week away from his Red Bull show, which has been described as a "multilevel psychopathological department store." Wondering how exactly his exhibition will relate to mental illness, Melgaard responds with his beliefs on consumer culture. "The way people are shopaholics today is sort of like mental illness. People compulsively need to get new stuff all the time, and I think that those circumstances, like how people are trying to rebirth themselves by buying new clothes and new things without the inability to stop doing this, is very pathological."
The shell of the department store is interesting, but just like a shopaholic, I'm more interested as to what is inside. Melgaard reveals that he will be unveiling a series of streetwear lines he has been designing in collaboration with creative director Babak Radboy over the past six months, some of which are displayed on his legion of mannequins that currently dominate the studio.
The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment will mark Melgaard's most prolific foray into clothing-as-art, but it certainly isn't the first occasion he's worked with fashion. In 2013, the artist collaborated with avant-garde favorite Eckhaus Latta to design clothes representing societal archetypes ranging from sociopaths to drug addicts. This initial dabble in fashion led way to Melgaard's first official fashion collection in late 2014, a collaboration with German label BLESS that emphasized a high-meets-low aesthetic, with wild jumpsuits embroidered with the same figures from Melgaard's paintings, a dress made to resemble a bank check written out by Bjarne Melgaard for 20,000 dollars, and the blanket of his mother described earlier, worn by none other than the inimitable Rihanna. Last year, the artist took over cult NYC store VFILES to release a series of purple and pink shirts, hoodies, and bags equipped with gaping holes and graphics of his signature eerie figures. Melgaard's show at Red Bull Arts isn't his first fashion rodeo.
When I ask him what inspired a shift from painting and installation to fashion and clothing, and how the transition was, he responds calmly, "It has been pretty seamless and organic. It hasn't been that hard. I'm very much about doing things one time and then not continuing it. I think many people do the same thing over and over and over, but I like to do one drastically different project each time for my own entertainment and amusement. I think it is very important not to be bored."
His need to take drastic shifts from his previous endeavors is evident in The Casual Pleasure of Disappointment. Unlike a label like Hood By Air , which traversed streetwear to reach the status of high-end couture, Melgaard takes the opposite route, forgoing his high-end fashion roots with BLESS to create streetwear. He says, "I chose streetwear because it's very loaded and it's also very casual; it falls between couture and generic clothing as a form of everyday wear."
Melgaard reveals some of the details of his upcoming streetwear lines. One is inspired by Bash Back!, an early 2000s anarchistic gay movement that advocated for armed warfare and civil disobedience against systems of oppression. Another line uses imagery and concepts from Narcotics Anonymous to criticize group consciousness and identity, which the artist believes is harmful "because it's much more interesting for people to define themselves as individuals rather than as part of a group. There is something fascist about the latter."
Like a meta streetwear critique, the artist has also created a line appropriating hype brand Supreme , transforming it into Suprem(e), a fictional collaboration between the skate brand and the aforementioned critical theory publisher Semiotext(e). The last line Melgaard tells me about is Bad Dad, which revolves around an analysis of father-son relationships and how they are often defined by how financially successful the son is.
After touring his showroom of a studio and speaking with the artist, it almost feels like fashion is Melgaard's sole medium of choice now, an idea further emphasized by an excerpt from his new show's press release: "The launch of the Melgaard brand suggests the retirement of Bjarne Melgaard as a fine artist, abandoning the humiliating context of the exhibition platform for the much worse context of cult streetwear." But as soon as I start asking him about his retirement as an artist, he quickly interrupts me, laughing "What?! No, I'm not retiring."
For more of Bjarne Melgaard's artwork, click here.