Eloquent Totemic Remembrances
By Tom Wachunas
“…Rather than focusing on the ugly side of truth, my intent is to focus on the nobility of those who sacrificed life, limb and spirit in service to their country and thus, to us.” - James Mellick
…Mellick doesn’t just sculpt his forms “out of wood” in the subtractive sense so much as he seems to lovingly caress them into being… ARTWACH review, September 3, 2012 http://artwach.blogspot.com/2012/09/tales-that-wag-dog.html
EXHIBIT: Wounded Warrior Dogs: Celebrating America’s K-9 Heroes, wood sculpture by James Mellick, at the Canton Museum of Art THROUGH JULY 17, 2016 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666 www.cantonart.org
One adaptation of an ancient tale tells us that after humans were expelled from Eden, a chasm began to separate them from all other animals. Humans feared and hunted the animals, who responded in kind. But one animal - a dog – paced anxiously as he watched the chasm grow ever wider and finally leaped across toward a man. As the dog was clinging desperately to the edge of the precipice, the man reached down and pulled him to safety. Thereafter the two remained the best of friends.
Artist James Mellick writes in his statement accompanying his stunning wood sculptures currently installed in the lobby of the Canton Museum of Art that, “…Our culture is so invested in dogs that they have become the totem animal of human kind.” His observation is particularly apropos when considering what “totems” are historically – likenesses of animals or other natural forms made to symbolize blood relationships with human clans or families.
Indeed, “blood relationships” of a kind are very much at the ideological center of these works. While they don’t illustrate such connections in the biologically genetic sense, they nonetheless bring to mind that making war seems to be, tragically enough, in our societal DNA.
Mellick’s constructed canine anatomies are assemblages of separately carved and/or layered parts of highly polished woods. It’s a fascinating method that reinforces the sense that these dogs, once terribly wounded, have been put back together and rehabilitated. Incorporated prosthetic devices in three of the sculptures, such as a knee joint or a leg, look like state-of-the-art medical devices made for humans.
And therein we can find an inroad to a deeper appreciation of the dual symbolism in Mellick’s pieces. Yes, the indisputable sublimity of his workmanship makes his sculpted objects a completely arresting homage to these animals and the vital services they have traditionally rendered during wartime. But again, these representations are also about the meaning of the relationship between human soldiers and their canine compatriots, and in turn their relationship to us. We can savor them far beyond seeing the dogs only as trained servants doing a “master’s’” bidding. They speak to a unique bonding, an esprit de corps, a shared duty and identity in the midst of harrowing conflict and rescue. As such, Mellick invites us to see the dogs – their journeys and deeds - as votive allegories of the selfless courage and sacrifice of all wounded veterans.
To put it another way, Mellick’s sculptures are exquisite proxies, at once beautiful and heartbreaking. The most compelling work in this grouping may well be the largest, called The Way Back. The dog is dramatically distressed (Mellick bleached and burned cedar wood to augment the effect) - struggling to walk, starving, fur disheveled and looking like so many knife points, one eye swollen shut, one thigh deeply scarred.
The way back indeed…from the precipice.
PHOTOS, from top: The Way Back / Not Forgotten / Wounded Warrior #1 /