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The Art of Collecting: CAM's Melandri lives with a big-hearted collection on a small scale

Lisa Melandri seated beneath a Trova print
Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Outside the realm of postmodern art, you might expect the director of St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum to also appreciate an earlier-period artist or two. So Lisa Melandri’s fondness for Italian surrealist Giorgio De Chirico and American abstract expressionist Philip Guston is hardly surprising. But duck decoy heads and flea-market ship paintings?

It seems that Melandri, 42, is obsessed with all things nautical. Her interests are as broad as the seafaring life (she re-read “Moby Dick” a year ago and “couldn’t put it down”) and as narrow as the minutia around the catch: “The Secret Life of Lobsters” is a recent literary obsession.

“It’s not just about the science of lobsters and the biology but also about the history of lobstering. I just can’t get enough of it,” Melandri said. “Another one is the history of cod fishing, the depletion of the population and how to bring them back.”

There’s a bigger picture here that encompasses Melandri’s fascination with oceanic themes, along with a wider range of art in her home.

“I think I’m really interested in atmosphere,” Melandri said. “I’m interested in work that is evocative of a particular emotional place as well as a particular physical place. When an artist can find that, I think that’s a very very special thing.”

Size and the study of identity

In Melandri’s Tower Grove South two-story home, ship paintings share space with a wide variety of works including two by sculptor/printmaker Leonard Baskin and five by painter/sculptor Blue McRight, some from her “On the Lawn” series,which focuses on the American obsession with the grassy suburban plot. A silver tea service, pottery from Craft Alliance and the porcelain “Flower” by Mara Lonner are among numerous three-dimensional objects.

But Melandri’s collection is not the visual cacophony she grew up with in Boston, amassed by a father whose collecting prompted Melandri to say, “He’s not a hoarder but ... .” Neither is it in the vein of minimalism that characterizes CAM and other contemporary galleries. Instead, she lives with a comfortably spaced display, notable for its range of periods and genres.

Mara Lonner, Flower
Credit Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Mara Lonner, Flower

“At home, I’m not a modernist -- I’m an everything-ist,” Melandri explained.

What many of her varied pieces have in common is their small size. When Melandri and her husband, artist Jordan Gaunce  moved to St. Louis for her job at CAM a year ago, they left a 700-square-foot apartment in Santa Monica. Their early 20th-century home here is nearly four times as large but a previous remodel for more openness eliminated a number of original walls, and hanging space is still at a premium.

Still, there’s plenty of room for paintings by Gaunce, gifts from friends and works from artists whose shows she’s been involved with, including William Pope.L , a University of Chicago instructor who’s “one of the most important artists working now,” according to Melandri. Pope.L is also known for his performance art, including long crawls that challenge the status quo about who struggles financially, socially and physically, and why. In 1991, he crawled through the gutter in New York’s Tompkins Square Park -- the scene of numerous demonstrations going back to the 1850s -- wearing a business suit and holding a flower.

Two of Pope.L’s “Failure Drawings” hang in the bedroom. The series, made gesturally on mere scraps of paper (which begs the question, are they, themselves, failures?) portray an apparent failure -- plane crashing, figure leaping off a mountain. Upon waking, Melandri enjoys their rich detail, non-traditional beauty and poetic essence “every day, first thing in the morning.”

From Pope.L's Skin Set series
Credit Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
From Pope.L's Skin Set series

Downstairs, in the family room, are four pieces from Pope.L’s “Skin Set” series,which illustrate the folly of prejudicial thinking. His early pieces consisted of sentences that began with “Black people are ... ” or “White people are ... .” Later works added green, yellow and red people, including one on Melandri’s wall that reads, “Red people are the tip for which the iceberg has been waiting.”

“Some are totally nonsensical, and it’s all about where our assumptions are about race and identity,” Melandri said.

‘A marriage of their lives’

Melandri’s delightful linguistic creativity comes into play not only when describing her “everything-ist” collection but also as she narrates our tour of her home. For example, “Crow,” a charcoal rendering given to Melandri by artist Lynn Hanson, is reduced to one very fitting adjective.

"It’s just so ‘crow-y,'" Melandri explained. “It’s not that it’s carefully drawn, it’s in the swoop of the artist’s hand.”

Imperfection is also a feature that Melandri loves in Gaunce’s abstract paintings, including his “The Weather Is Always Nice This Time of Year,” hanging in their downstairs half-bath.

Blue McRight, Untitled (cul-de-sac)
Credit Jarred Gastreich | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Blue McRight, Untitled (cul-de-sac)

“They’re all done by hand so they’re not so slick,” Melandri said.

Slickness is also not a big theme in the welcoming Melandri-Gaunce home, a collaborative meeting of two artistic minds with similar tastes. Any deliberations between the couple tend to focus on ordering their to-do list, according to Gaunce. 

“Our discussions are often not about whether we like it or we hate it, but about where in the list of priorities is this one for getting framed?” Gaunce said.

When Pulitzer director Kristina Van Dyke first visited their home, she was struck by its reflection on their relationship.

“It’s a marriage of their lives,” Van Dyke said. “You can see the East Coast and the West Coast and then the pottery she’s acquired in St. Louis. It indexes her life experience, and Jordan’s.”

‘Something really wonderful’

The couple’s fondness for any particular work doesn’t mean they like it for the same reasons. Mark Dutcher’s “The Spotlight,” a focal point of the dining and family rooms, draws Melandri in with its theatricality, its “gobs and squeezes” of paint, and its “little bit of strangeness.”

Pointing out the contradiction between the fresh, white-and-blue pansy in the center and the sense of deadness in the many other surrounding, possibly flower-like splats, Melandri said she never tires of studying it.

“I can find new things that attract me in every viewing, and that’s how I know I’ve found something really wonderful,” Melandri said.

Gaunce enjoys the “push and pull of space” in the painting.

About this series

From time to time, we will take readers into the homes of people who work in visual arts or who have built art collections of note. With the first group, the reader may discover the private tastes and curiosities of those who determine public displays or choose what to offer for sale. The other articles are a chance to glimpse works no longer in the public domain. In all, those who collect will talk about their inspiration and tips for others on their own path of collecting.

For more in this series, click here.

“There’s this flat color frame around it so you kind of step into the painting. But since there’s a spotlight, that brings you out of the painting because it’s external,” he said.

The Dutcher, whose slight nod to formal-dining-area tradition in its still-life composition, leads to plenty of conversation around the table.

“Some people will say, ‘Oh, I love that, who did that?’ and other people will literally take the time to tell you that they hate it,” Melandri said.

“But then they ask you what you like about it, and then you tell them and they see it in a different way or vice-versa,” Gaunce added.

Melandri also enjoys lively discussions about this and other art in their home. But unlike someone who’s specifically interested in portraiture or minimalism, or a certain medium or period, she’s quick to point out she’s not a “collector.”

“It’s different than someone who’s building a very specific collection,” she said. “I really love to live with certain objects because they’re made by a friend or a colleague, or they mark a certain point in my life and they’re very important to me.”

Lisa Melandri’s Art Collection Tips

Look, look, look, at as much as you can, as often as you can.
That is the only way to tune your eye and find context for everything in the visual universe.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.