On one wall of Luxembourg & Dayan's fourth-floor bathroom, where he built his latest installation, Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard hung a letter that he wrote late last year to murderer Teodoro Baez, who is serving a life sentence in Pontiac, Illinois, for killing two people with a samurai sword after a dispute about drugs. Baez's had been sentenced to die, but he was spared last year when Illinois abolished the death penalty.
In his letter to Baez, Melgaard introduces himself as "a contemporary artist" and explains that he is working on a show at a New York gallery. "I own several letters and drawings of yours," he explains, adding that he included those works in a group show he curated at Maccarone last year, "The Social Failure," a one-week addendum of sorts to his well reviewed exhibition "After Shelley Duval '72 (Frogs on the High Line)," whose artist list included more than two dozen murderers, including Ted Bundy, Phillip Jablonski, and John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who is believed to have killed more than 33 young boys and who took up painting after his arrest.
Melgaard's exhibition was actually not Gacy's first time participating in a contemporary art show: that credit goes to—as far as I know—Mike Kelley's 1988 piece Pay for Your Pleasure, which included some 40 painted banners that depict various artists and intellectuals paired with an unsavory or just simply uncomfortable quotations. For instance, one from Oscar Wilde: "The fact of a man being a poisoner is nothing against his prose." (Google Books has the complete list of the quotations from a Kelley anthology.) An artwork by a mass murderer—the person changed based on the location—came at one end of the installation.
Here's Christopher Knight explaining how that worked:
"At the 1988 debut of 'Pay for Your Pleasure' in Chicago, a painting by mass murderer John Wayne Gacy was shown in the hall. At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, which owns the installation, a drawing by 'Freeway Killer' William Bonin has been displayed. And, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts here, in the compact, 12-year survey of the L.A.-based artist's work that has been traveling in Europe since April, the corridor leads to a blocky portrait-bust, created in cement in 1977 by Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle. The piece gets made wryly site-specific, as the murderer's art changes with each location in which 'Pay for Your Pleasure' is shown."Peter Schjedahl wrote about it too, back when he was at 7 Days and it was on view at Metro Pictures.
But back to Melgaard's letter. He goes on to tell Baez that he is "interested in establishing a correspondence," and asks if he is willing to "collaborate to the extent you are able" on an upcoming exhibition. It's Pay for Your Pleasure the sequel, apparently, in which the artist throws himself into even more twisted, abject ethical and moral situations. It sounds like a pretty horrendous idea—the artist taking Jerry Magoo's comparison of him to Slipknot to some horrific extreme—but we'll see how it all pans out. (Melgaard, for the record, has an installation opening at Karma on January 19.)
The piece at Luxembourg & Dayan, though, was pure Melgaard, the superb overload of ideas and form that everyone has been rightfully swooning over for the past few years all shoved into a tiny bathroom: chalkboard walls scrawled with messages, pictures of Baez, a sink filled with Diet Coke cans, empty prescription bottles (labeled for Melgaard, no less) and pills, obscene drawings, a photograph of a ferocious-looking jaguar. All wonderful.
Besides serving as a stellar advertisement to encourage visitors to toss an installation into that unused bathroom they have, Melgaard's work was there as part of the gallery's "Grisaille" show, whose news release noted that grey "connotes estrangement, gloom, neutrality, rigor, seriousness, objectivity, gravitas, elegance, neutrality, depression, practicality, and calm." Which are all words one could associate, in various places, rather handily with Melgaard's installation. Hovering now in this in-between space, will the artist know—will we know?—when he crosses over into something else?