Nathan Meltz | New futures
Written by Miranda K. Metcalf | Published 14 Nov 2018
Nathan Meltz likes to wear a few hats. He’s a lecturer at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he’s a multitalented, multimedia artist and he’s the curator for the influential Screenprint Biennial. I sat down to chat with him during his evening in the Hudson River Valley of New York State, and my sunny morning on the first hot day of the year in Sydney, Australia, via Skype. I recorded our conversation for his episode on the podcast and upon relistening, two things became particularly clear to me a.) Nathan is working with an enviable amount of brain power and b.) he’s so damn articulate it’s going to make me look bad. I’m not sure if there’s a hashtag for wanting someone’s lack of “ums” to be your goal, but there should be.
Meltz’s practice is among the most atheistically distinctive I’ve known. Layers of colour and images form precise compositions of robot farmers and mechanical soldiers. His bright palette and graphic shapes instantly read as screenprint, for a result that is not only beautifully rendered, but also poetic, playful, and more than a little bit dark. There is a violence and humanity to the figures that brings to mind the phrase “more human than human.” Meltz’s work is political and nothing is beyond the reach of politics. Imagery of family, food, and work all feature in his screenprints, which take these concepts and more and examine them through the lens of twenty-first century technologies. This all comes from his belief that we live in a political world and as long as the forces of patriarchy, state craft, colonialism, state-sponsored violence, and incarceration are omnipresent, we, as artists, have to react against all that. As you can imagine, the question of how to make good political art is close to his practice, but one he jokingly says he doesn’t want to be asked about it. Through our conversation we both agreed that the task is an undeniably difficult undertaking, and yet seems more relevant than ever. It is his view that to make work about politics is in some ways the lowest common denominator, the goal should be to make work that engages in politics.
Currently, Meltz is drawing on the work of William Gropper as found in the archives of the early 20th century anarchist magazine “New Masses”. The images of this publication are iconic, marked with the stippling of the lithographic crayon and showing the classic exaggerated round bellies of the “haves” harkening back to the Monopoly man. They are put in new context through Meltz’s reimaginings. The end results are screenprints full of imagery imbued with the weight of civic and political unrest that draw the viewer into a narrative of a completely new robotic world. Engaging with anarchist theories, he is fully aware of the fact that many ask us to step away from the act of object creation and instead encourage time-based or conceptual art making. Luckily for the printmaking community Meltz pushes back on this, believing that we live in a world with physical bodies and as long as have physical bodies we will want to have physical artefacts to reflect against.
Meltz came to print, and more specifically screenprint, through the gateway drug of the gig poster. He made what is admittedly the best and worst decision of his life to spend the year after graduating from The University of Wisconsin touring with a band. As anyone who has had the pleasure of getting close to the music industry knows, you keep gas in the tour bus not through the playing of tunes, but through the selling of merch. Meltz put his artistic skills to use producing their posters and t-shirts during this year, but it wasn’t until his late twenties that his visual arts practice began to take center stage. After years of using screenprint to its most infamous ends, it transitioned to being the primary medium in his two dimensional work. Even though he’s well aware of its at times less than revered status. Quoting an unnamed lithographer, Meltz lovingly refers to screenprint as the “mac and cheese” of printmaking: “it’s easy and gooey and everyone loves it”. Admittedly, I may have held this belief (sub)consciously until I was first sent a catalog from The Screenprint Biennial a few years ago. The breadth and depth of screenprinting practice exhibited in these catalogs is enough to shake even the most stalwart skeptic.
The seed for the Screenprint Biennal was planted during a talk at IMPACT 8 in Dundee, Scotland where Meltz heard Richard Noyce mention in passing a medium-specific biennial that took place in Eastern Europe. With his interest peaked, he began researching whether or not such a thing existed for screenprint. After some deep Googling he found that there was something of the sort in Japan, but no one in the Western Hemisphere had taken on the project. Thus, which I feel is so often the case when one works in print media, because it was something that he wanted to see, but it didn’t exist yet, he took to making it himself. It was already past the grant cycle for that year and while that might have deterred a less-determined soul, Meltz took on the project and chose to fund the project via Kickstarter —a method that he cannot in good conscious recommend. Participating artists donated prints as kick-backs for fundees and in the end he had enough money for a catalog and not much more. The donation of wallspace, preparators’ time, and what was undoubtedly countless hours on the part of Meltz filled in the rest. It was an invitational held at various venues throughout the city of Troy, NY, from art centres to boutique stationery shops. It was a labor of love and Meltz “documented the shit of out it.” This allowed him to break into the next grant cycle swinging. With documentation in hand, Meltz received enough money to make it bigger and better the following the year. Now it stands as the canon-making event for the medium, bringing attention and accolades to the “mac and cheese” of our print world.
More than anything, for me, The Screen Biennial is an inspiration. “It was the show I wanted to see, so I made it,” Meltz says. Using ones’ connections, energy, and gumption to create something that fills the void you see is what makes the gears of our community turn and we are lucky to have people like Meltz as an engine.