Tom Melsen’s Timely Paintings Address the Drama of Contemporary Life

by Paul Weiner

Tom Melsen’s paintings fuse the dramatic and aggressive into a melancholy that can be seen as a result of his peripatetic travels, a reflection of the places he has experienced. His paintings emerge out of a liminal space between the intelligibility of representation and abstraction’s poetic theatrics. Indeed, Melsen’s paint handling exists in a space that makes odd bedfellows of Peter Doig and Cecily Brown as his compositions blend unsettling passages of quietude and conservative color choices with consistently bold punches of intuitive paint application and occasional layers of glowing chroma. With an unflinching gaze, Melsen captures the jouissance of painterly turmoil through which a balancing act between discomfort and pleasure reveals the psychological essence of captured identities and landscapes. He is at his best when representing fictional, anonymous people such as a man in a brown suit, someone blowing out birthday candles, or a partygoer. These paintings feel free and inventive while maintaining the hawkishly staring study present in his more objective works. This lens is most apparent in his painting of a woman in the hospital, in which Melsen unloads layers of fleshy paint blurred into a bruising, purple container to develop a piercing poetry of desolation and grief.

In 2014, Melsen exhibited his work at Firehouse Gallery in Dublin, Ireland; somoS in Berlin, Germany; P60 in Amstelveen, the Netherlands; and Kunstwerk aan de Winkel in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. This year, he has exhibited at Gallery Nomad in Berlin, Germany with a forthcoming show to open in April at De Kristal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Melsen has also been nominated for the Palm Art Award, filmed for a documentary by Brazilian filmmaker Leticia Simoes, and collaborated with techno record label Lateral Fragments. Melsen is also a poet and musician who has composed soundtracks for independent films.


The Walk, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 60 cm


Under Folding Branches/Autumn Leaves, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 70 cm

Paul Weiner:
How did you first come to painting as your artistic medium?

Tom Melsen:
Ever since I was a child, I have gone to museums and read books about art. My father studied art history, so we often went to a museum, and he introduced me to many great painters. I remember going to a museum with my father when there was a special Picasso exhibition going on. It was an exhibition with works from his blue period. After seeing that exhibition, I knew I wanted to become an artist. I started reading more and more about Picasso; it was all really inspiring. I became interested in his life and work. At the same time, I started working with acrylic and oil paint, trying out different things.


Portrait of Picasso, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 70 cm

van gogh

Portrait of van Gogh, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 40 cm

Paul Weiner:
Your paintings often represent historical artists such as Picasso or Van Gogh. Which artists have had the greatest impact on your work?

Tom Melsen:
Besides Picasso, Francis Bacon became a huge inspiration for my own work. I think what drew me to the works of Bacon is that it is very dramatic. The images he portrays, the colors that he uses, and the stories behind his works are very interesting. I love how Bacon portrays intense loneliness, despair, and inner turmoil. I think that is much more interesting than a painting of ordinary flowers or, for example, a man on a horse. When people tell me they think my work is too dramatic, I take that as a compliment. You can never have too much drama. I’ve learned that, and a lot more, from the great painters.


Self-Portrait, acrylic on canvas, 90 x 70 cm

Paul Weiner:
When blending abstraction and the human form, to what extent is the human condition or emotion as important as formal concerns such as painterly beauty or composition?

Tom Melsen:
I think the emotion in a painting is very important. That is also why I love doing portraits. You can capture a lot of emotion in a face. I never attended art school. I have no specific way of working. I really just paint what I feel. Composition and painterly beauty is, of course, very important, but I would say emotion in art is what makes a painting unique. I think it’s the same with music; some people may be very good singers, but when there is lack of emotion, it does not have any effect on me.


Memories, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 70 cm

Paul Weiner:
Do you see your poems and musical works as being similar to your paintings or does your thought process change drastically between artistic mediums?

Tom Melsen:
A painting can be an inspiration for a musical piece. For example, when I go to a museum and look at a piece of art, it sometimes happens that a melody pops up in my head, just a certain melody that fits the image. I have often been inspired to write something after visiting a museum. But there is no real connection between my paintings and musical recordings or writings. I keep them separate. Although everything I do seems to have a melancholic feel to it. I don’t know why that is, actually.


Man In Brown Suit, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 40 cm

Paul Weiner:
Tell us a little about the emotions behind your painting, The Walk, which seems to be an abstracted landscape.

Tom Melsen:
I wanted to make a painting of someone who is walking through this landscape, a landscape with a clear, blue sky and tall grass. In front of the painting, you see a man. I’d like to think that this man is on a journey. Everyone questions where their life is going sometimes. This painting is about dealing with yourself and following your own path. This painting was also inspired by some of the landscapes van Gogh used to paint.


Woman At Party, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 cm


Birthday, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 cm

Paul Weiner:
You mentioned that your art is often seen as dramatic. Do you see your paintings as being stories that continue from one work to the next or is each painting representing a new idea or emotion?

Tom Melsen:
Each painting is representing a new idea. I like to travel, and when I do, I always carry a small notebook around with me. I’m often scribbling down new ideas for a painting. I’m always exploring different things. I do not want to repeat myself. Over the years, I’ve written so many things down that there is still so much I have yet to paint.


Woman At Hospital, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 cm

Paul Weiner:
Who is the subject for your painting of a woman in the hospital and what led you to paint this woman?

Tom Melsen:
This painting is completely fictional. Last year, I wrote a poem about someone in a hospital. It goes something like this:

“you say your mother is ill. She doesn’t get any better. All your life you’ve never learned how to go without her. No roses by the window. No one’s on the phone. And all that you wonder is how to move along. And all the things you’ve never done. You never do them now. You say your mother is ill. The hospital is empty now.”

The original poem was a bit longer, but I made this painting because I wanted to put some of these writings in a book. I cancelled the book, but the painting survived.


Tree At Night, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 cm

Paul Weiner:
Your painting of a tree at night attempts something formally complicated as you attempt to represent something that, in reality, is barely visible. How did you handle this challenge to create a scene that embodies this tree?

Tom Melsen:
I could say that I studied this or did a lot of sketches beforehand, but that would be a lie. As with most of my paintings, this happened by mistake. I’m not a master painter. I actually don’t really know what I’m doing. My way of working is that when I make three paintings, one of them survives. I have to throw away the other two because I don’t think they are any good. It’s a frustrating way of working, but, when a painting works out, it’s a great, almost magical feeling. With this particular painting, Tree At Night, I knew that I wanted to create a night scene with red tones. I had this picture in my mind, and all these colors in my head, and it, surprisingly, turned out pretty much the way I wanted.

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