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May 1st, 2002 Lisa Lambert | Visual Arts
 

QUEEN BEE

What is it about paper crowns and bee boxes that makes Melody Owen's work so haunting?

     
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One year ago this week, artist Melody Owen stood smiling amid a swarm of people at the Oregon Biennial's opening party. Her red dress echoed the bowls of red ink she'd placed on a table covered in white paper crowns. People also crowded to peek into bee boxes she'd lined with photos of women--a comment on the lives and public deaths of queen bees. Owen, who received one of the exhibition's jurors' awards (and much Portland buzz for weeks), was unofficially crowned Queen
of the Biennial.

Then the exhibition closed, and the ascended artist dropped from sight. Her only work displayed here during the year was the glimmering and gorgeous Car Crash Chandelier, in the PDX Window Project. Had her career suffered the same fate as the queen bees that fascinate her?

"I feel like I've been busy," says the 33-year-old at a table in the Aalto Lounge, where her photo Apiary currently hangs. Then, she whips through her activities of the last year. The Pacific Northwest Annual. A group show at Tennessee's Fugitive Art Center. Illustrating a book by Kevin Sampsell (out in May). An upcoming solo exhibition in Tennessee. Getting her top-secret Igloo Project ready to unleash (she'll only say the project will be on view at PDX Gallery in July before being dispersed throughout the city). Oh, and a day job, accordion lessons and welding classes.

Sadly, her crowns, designed to resemble buildings in New York, did not enjoy such a stellar year. One month after the World Trade Center collapsed, a vandal at the Pacific Northwest Annual tossed the red ink onto the crowns. Before Owen could make repairs, a Bellevue critic praised the piece, calling it, she says, "blood-splattered."

Unbelievably, Owen's first stabs at creative expression were through the compact (and less splattered) medium of writing. She grew uncomfortable with the fact that the reader was left to internally visualize what the words described. Showing people her vision and letting them find their own meanings felt more exact and honest. So the University of Oregon graduate started with collages, then worked toward progressively bigger pieces. "So much art exists, and it's hard to make something new, really new," she says of her drive to combine found images and objects. "I admire people who can make a painting out of nothing. Or musicians, who make music out of the air. I guess you could say what I do is closer to what a filmmaker does."

More like an avant-garde documentary filmmaker. Owen chooses themes that combine science, philosophy and psychiatry, as in the fruit she recently stuffed with inorganic materials. Her idea is that things in nature are perfect both in their forms and in the metaphors we derive from them. Her pieces also use accumulations that look compulsively gathered and maintained (those 1,000 unique, handcrafted crowns).

Unlike other artwork in town, hers is strangely both beckoning and reserved. At the Biennial, people longed to loom over the table of crowns, but also felt nervous about spilling the ink. The chandelier hanging in PDX's window was awe-inspiring until its similarity to a broken windshield became chillingly apparent. Ultimately, Owen's is a teasing and mysterious body of work that keeps you intrigued--even after a year.


From looking at her work, you'd think Owen compulsively collected just about everything. But, because she rarely lives in the same place longer than two years, she limits her personal collections to pulp covers of her favorite literature, foreign-language editions of Alice in Wonderland, and Tom Waits records.


More information about the artist's current projects can be found at http://www.home.earthlink.net/~thistlepress .
 
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