DECEMBER 11, 2008 - JANUARY 17, 2009
It is cool and dark in Colton, Oregon on a crisp rainless evening. Trees on top of the surrounding hills look like rows of acolytes standing still in shadowy meditation. There is a clearing in the natural bowl formed by Goat Mountain and the other hills. In that clearing spattered with moonlight kneels a man with a full white beard and ragged clothing, who is very deliberately and playfully gathering earth from specific spots and putting it in a ceramic urn-like jar.
His name is Melvin Edward Nelson, and he is an artist who sometimes referred to himself as M.E.N., which also stands for Mighty Eternal Nation. His mission that night I describe was singular, and he pursued it on many clear nights. When a flying saucer landed on his property he would hike to the clearing where he knew it had landed and gather the transformed charged earth to make pigment for his paintings. He called this gathered earth ‘stardust’ and he felt it was the repository of great cosmic power. By using it in his art, the paintings he made with the pigment also became conduits for great interplanetary power.
He was born in 1908 in Michigan. Something happened to him when he was thirty-five years old, something in his mind. He left his wife and daughter to hobo it to the West Coast. There he found work as an electrician in Portland while working as an inventor on his own. He built a ‘Planetron’ and a ‘Cyclotronic Generator’. The ‘Planetron’ allowed him to track ‘UFO’s. He also had a small building filled with rock-crushing machines, which provided the stone colors for his series of paintings he called ‘Photo-Genetics.’ In those works, he essentially reinvented Decalcomania, a decorative technique by which engravings and prints may be transferred to pottery or other materials. The surrealists took up the technique in 1936, foregoing a preconceived object to be transferred, and Nelson followed this path.
By astral projection Nelson was able to observe the nature of atoms and planetary bodies. This is illustrated more graphically in his other category of drawings he made using more traditional inks and watercolors that he called ‘Sentra-Photothesis’. These drawings are simplified, exquisitely colored schematics of cosmic energy. Many of his drawings were made on the backs of old electrical plans and period menus from Portland diners.
The Fifties and Sixties in the US were the heyday of popular science fads and pulp mysticism. Inventing machines that ranged from the most mundane utilitarian and practical to the most obscure and idiosyncratically visionary was a common household preoccupation. In some cases, it was obsessive. Ed Nelson considered himself to be in the calling of inventing tangible machines for intangible concepts. His drawings and artwork were a means of not only documenting those visions but of proselytizing, as well. He wanted the world to benefit from these discoveries but it was his mission to be their arbiter. His was a large and ambitious vision.
Like many of these American abstracted big visions, Melvin Edward Nelson’s own version ended perhaps not in abject failure and tragedy, but pretty close to it. What was successful was his story that followed after his death when Peter Falk, an art historian, found the drawings in a rare bookstore in San Francisco. Now those visions are shared with us in this exhibition. Nelson’s drawings survived the extreme schizoid drama of his inner and outer worlds to feed our imaginations today. This is the first gallery exhibition of his work in the United States.