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Sera Melón es Sera Sandia, Sera Sandia es Sera Melón

Showing from March 16 to April 16 at Howard Street Gallery and co-sponsored by Fullhearted, Melón and Sandía’s collaborative show offers a creative look at mixed media, street art aesthetics and playful meditations on life, death, immigration and gender. Sandía means Watermelon in Spanish, and the title mirrors the show’s wordplay. The aforementioned artists graciously allowed me to interview them while they set up for the show opening, exuding a warmth and creative synthesis in conversation that is aesthetically extended in their art.

The show came about by accident. It was initially planned as a solo exhibition of Melón’s work, but he decided that it would best be accomplished collaboratively and so he contacted Sandía (Sandía Roja). Howard Street Gallery, around for nearly a year now, is frequently a venue for graffiti artists, evident from the very full black book on the counter, as well as pieces by well-known Chicago artists, including but not limited to: Fonzo, Stef G, Goons, Nerd and others.

Melón fits into the above lineage: He was born and raised in Chicago and got the name Melón, first because of a childhood mispronunciation of “Guatamalan” as “Watermelon,” but, second, and perhaps more importantly, as a writer name that he adopted at the age of 13. Melón characterized his aesthetic style, influenced by Chicago graffiti, as heavy, chunky letters with thick outlines. His style also bears the influence of the Hawai’ian writing scene. It’s often marked by curving, wave-like and lyrical outlines and fantastic colors. Strong pinks, blues and greens appear in much of Melon’s work in the show. The hybridity between Chicago and Hawai’i styles renders Melón’s own style somewhat homeless and difficult to place geographically. At the same time, it is iconic and easy to recognize as Melón-ian —  clean lines, faceless women and fantastic backgrounds are but some of the key elements of a Melón’s aesthetic.

Melon and Sandia. City Bird, 2013. Acryllic on wood. (Image credit: Caitlin Bruce)

Sandía’s style, on the other hand, is kinetic, agitated and admits a sense of intensity. Her woodcuts bear hundreds of small lines, struck into the surface, exploding out and around skeletal figures. Partial to black and white tones, she was persuaded by Melón to experiment with color. Even so, Sandía’s work offers strong, compelling figures with little distracting background. Sandía is influenced by Jose Guadelupe Posada, who is from her hometown.

Posada was a printer in the pre-Revolutionary period in Mexico who provided many of the aesthetic resources utilized by the Tres Grandes: Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Sandía added that Melón provided an influence for her with his “cartoonish characters.” The product of the above influences is one of her favorite pieces, a woodcut of a skeleton in aquamarine.

The combination, then, of Melón’s strong colors and careful lines and Sandía’s preference for black, white, brown and grey tones and agitated surfaces crowded with lines, text and shapes perhaps the opposition between utopian and hyper-realist displays, is compelling. A combination of the ordinary and the imaginary. Walking into the Howard Street Gallery, the viewer is confronted with visions of heaven and hell, death and laughter, all at the same time.

One of their collaborative pieces, City Bird, illustrates the productive artistic partnership that the show has generated. The piece, acrylic on wood, was started by Sandía years ago when she “found a piece of wood on the street” and then had “taken a picture of a nice bird,” drawing the silhouette on the wood, which then “sat on a dresser for years.” Melón noticed it one day and started to paint it; Sandía then added more color and flare. The product is a rich piece depicting a street scene within the bird, smoke curling out beyond the silhouette, a combination of urban fantasy and urban detritus (see above).

A key strand of our conversation was the different ways in which both artists navigated issues of gender identity and femininity. With her upfront aesthetic, Sandía takes on issues of domestic violence in a watercolor and drawing of a battered woman, as well as critique of machismo culture in her Gallos (roosters) crowing: “Muy gallito!” or, “is that all you’ve got?” Issues of gender identity are also linked to concerns about immigration in Sandía’s work and are revealed in her frequent use of skeletons. Her work, she argues, is about showing people [in the United States] that death is not scary — it is a part of life.

Melón. Guadelupe/Virgen. (Image credit: Caitlin Bruce)

Melón’s frequent invocation of the Virgin Mary, or, in his hybrid Mary-Guadelupe piece at Howard Street Gallery, speaks to his concern about femininity as a source of power. “She [the Virgin Mary] is an interesting woman … one, she is a virgin. But [second], she is also a powerful woman,” he said. Melón’s interest in feminine identity is also evident in his iconic faceless women, which he says are drawn to emphasize that, in contrast to society’s obsession with locating women’s beauty in their face or exterior, his “fearless use of colors” enables the viewer to “just look around her and [see that] everything around her is beautiful.” By making his female figures faceless, he maintains a sense of universality — she could be anyone and everyone. Melón’s pieces, he suggested, are based on emotions, not only his own, but those that he observes in others.

The title of the show is also, quite aptly, the name of a song in Mexico that is similar to the children’s song “London Bridge is Falling Down.” In the song, Melón and Sandía demonstrate, you make a bridge, and, when it falls down, the child in the middle has to choose what side you are on. Are you with Melón or with Sandía? But in fact, the song goes on to say “Será Melón sera Sandía…” — to be one is to be the other, the same but different. The show elliptically hints at the risk of cultural clashes between ethnic and national identity, and between gallery and graffiti style, but it also offers a playful answer to these potential conflicts by arguing that we are all quite different, but also quite a bit the same. “We had an idea of making it kind of political. Are you Mexican or American?  Which side are you gonna pick? Because there is always that cultural clash: The [sense that] I am too American for the Mexicans and too Mexican for the Americans, but, we didn’t have time, so we just decided to have fun with it,” Sandía remarked. Although the exhibit is indeed visually playful and engaging, it also provides food for thought.

Melón Y Sandía runs through early April 16th at Howard Street Gallery, located at 747 West Howard St. Evanston, IL. Visit their facebook page for more information.

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