Meet Mike Mellia: Post-Warhol, Post-Facebook, Post-Dada Artist Surprising New Yorkers Everywhere

Some time ago, I ventured off on a press trip with a number of colleagues, most younger than I am, on which we were treated not only to luxury accommodations and tours of exquisite museums, but to delicious meals almost every day of the tour.  And at each one, at least one under-30 reporter made a point of photographing: the meal. His (or her) own plate at the meal.  Individual dishes as they were served.  Everyone else’s plate.  And finally, a self-portrait.

Naively, I asked why. “Facebook,” they all said, and “Instagram.” Like everyone wants to know what they ate? And what they looked like every single day, with every single meal? Were they kidding?

So call me an old fogey, but apparently I’m in good company: conceptual photographer Michael  Mellia seems to find it all as disturbing a statement of our times as I do (and he’s only 32).  But rather than kvetch about it, he’s turned the phenomenon into a new body of works meant to tickle and provoke as much as to critique.

Titled collectively “Self-Absorbed,” the project involves applying new labels, bedecked with a self-portrait photograph, to familiar all-American consumer goods, converting them from their brand to his own. .  In addition, he photographs the objects in his studio and creates faux advertisements for the products he invents. Hence “Michaelo Reds Class A Cigarettes” (and a “Michaelo Man” ad to go with it); “Aunt JeMichael maple syrup”; “Kentucky Fried Michael Fried Chicken,” and so on.  Mellia distributes the relabeled products selectively at bodegas, supermarkets, and the homes of friends around New York, “as an alternative to social media’s online status updates,” he says.

Mellia, like me, takes issue with the narcissism of much of social media.” Social media basically encourages the self-absorbed generation of millennials to constantly broadcast self-portraits to the public,” he says. “By doing this, everyone now basically creates his own ‘brand.’“   His own product placement project addresses the “brand” craze by simply “re-imagining some of the most famous brand icons of American advertising.” The resulting works, according to the artist, “operate in the realm of interactive performance art, subversive street art, and Anti-Warholian pop-art.”

Mellia has held three solo shows at New York’s Tapir Editions over the past three years, some of which, ironically, have gotten him plenty of attention among mass consumer-driven media, including CNN and Cool Hunting.

Normally, I would cringe at an artist promoting his own work via e-mail, but in Mellia’s case, it seems thoroughly appropriate to the work. I laughed when I received a press release about “Self-Absorbed” from him last week, grateful to discover an artist taking on an issue that was driving me batty. I sent him a note back asking more about the project – a question that led to a brief, but informative, e-mail discussion about his work.

Abigail R. Esman: Can you explain a bit how the project works, exactly? Are you creating the objects and planting them in stores and then photographing them there? Or just leaving them there to see what happens as a conceptual/performance project?

Michael Mellia: Conceptually, the idea is to expand the realm of photography into a more interactive performance experience with the public. So I do not photograph people finding my consumables for fear of interrupting the experience, or alerting them to my presence.  They themselves, though, will often photograph the products with their camera phones and share the process with others without my being involved.  The project combines ideas from performance art with tactics of subversive street art.

ARE: And what made you select these particular objects?

I have always been interested in the fine line between advertising and art, and re-imagining these specific famous American icons was a way to address many social and cultural topics simultaneously.  These are icons that would be universally recognizable through the language of advertising in American culture.  So there is something unnerving about substituting a hyper-masculine cowboy, a very clean sailor, a farmer, a southern colonel, or an elderly African-American woman, with my own face.

But the larger idea has to do with the way that, through social media we now make choices about how we “brand” ourselves in a more conscious manner.

ARE: Has anyone ever tried to buy the “Michael” products?

MM: Yes, actually, which leads to other surreal interactions between an amused consumer and a bewildered store clerk.  They will often let people take them.  Once they leave my hands the objects go on their own journeys.

ARE:  I presume the studio photos are for sale, yes? Or the objects themselves?

MM: The objects/sculptures are created for the sole purpose of the performance experience, and are only available to whoever discovers them in public.  However, as a photographer I also created prints of the objects in an aspirational advertising, pop-art style, that are for sale to commemorate the experience of the project.  Each image is a limited edition of 8, and are $4,000 per print.

ARE: That strikes me as being very close to Warhol’s work, actually, just from the opposite side of the room, so to speak. Yet you call them “anti-Warholian. Are you anti-Warhol?

MM: I agree — the project is in many ways very close to his work, just from the opposite side of the room.  I feel that Warhol glorified consumer products and designs for their own sake.   On the other hand, my consumer products introduce an element of irony by replacing the archaic stereotyped icons of American advertising with my own face. The icons are then deconstructed and exposed when juxtaposed with modern self-portraits.

Much of this really is about a feeling I have generally, which is that young Americans’ addiction to broadcasting self-portraits on social media is the new “heroin” of the millennial generation.  This is my response to that.

ARE: And the project continues?

MM: Oh, yes. The Mr. Michael family of consumables is always expanding into new products, coming son to a store near you.

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