Born 1977 in Chicago, Illinois; lives in Chicago, Illinois
Melanie Schiff’s photographs utilize formal elements of two of the medium’s most ubiquitous types, the still life and the self-portrait. The artist’s keen feel for mise-en-scène, her eye for the low-key lyricism of the everyday, and her easy sense of humor imbue the quotidian subject matter she favors with uncommon lightness and poignancy.
Schiff was strongly influenced by feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann, and her vivid, bodily mode of self-portraiture frequently bears the traces of kindred spirits like Ana Mendieta and Valie Export—in Mud Reclining (2006), the artist depicts herself as a muckcovered odalisque stretching languorously in a tropical landscape, evoking both the former’s Siluetas and the latter’s Body Configurations series—or Hannah Wilke, whose body appliqués are jokily reconceived as a pair of raspberry pasties in boobberry (2003). Schiff’s still lifes exhibit a similar lightness of touch, conjuring the incidental poetry of the twenty-something apartment share or the backyard summer barbecue: the play of light through a stack of CD jewel boxes (Untitled (cases), 2005); a sunset sinking behind a spent bottle of Jack Daniel’s (Emergency, 2006); a Technicolor arc hovering in a geyser of playfully spit water (Rainbow, 2006). The apparently casual composition and laid-back ambience of these carefully constructed images sometimes suggest the lo-fi aesthetic milieu of shoe-gazer bands, and the connection between the artist’s deft photographic sprezzatura and a certain dressed-down, alt-rock pensiveness is a conscious element of Schiff’s approach, both in terms of individual images and in the strategic way she orchestrates resonant relationships between them in the context of her installations. “You hear a sad song and you feel like it’s your experience,” she has observed, “and I wanted to make art like that, to make photos like that.”
In her recent works, Schiff has both extended and added nuance to her investigations of photographic states of mind. Images like Studio of 2006—shot in a theatrically disheveled, light-filled apartment above a well-known recording studio—explore the ineffable ambiences of inspiration and creation. Meanwhile, in Water Birth (2007), Schiff presents a slyly disjunctive domestic setting—a huge house plant crowds a bathtub, bathed in the glow from a slanted skylight—nicely representative of her attempts to strike resonant notes with simple tools, to produce her own idiosyncratic brand of magical photographic realism. JEFFREY KASTNER
Melanie Schiff, Water Birth, 2007. Digital chromogenic print, 50 x 60 in. (127 x 101.6 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago and Leipzig