Work of the Week – April 7, 2014
by Adrian Etheridge
Mel Justus (1944- ) is a native Western North Carolinian with a flair for experimental and non-traditional art. Justus’s childhood was infused with art as both of his parents had an affinity for crafts. Apparently, Justus spent many evenings watching his father (a plumber) “fashion lamps and other objects out of brass Model T and other old car parts.”  The craftsmanship stuck and pushed Justus to study art at various institutions until he finally settled on our very own University of North Carolina Asheville, where he earned at B.A. degree in Fine Arts. Justus garnered many accolades there and after, receiving the Wolfson Art Scholarship, participating in a solo exhibition at the North Carolina Show in Raleigh, and winning a National Endowment Fund courtesy of the Asheville Art Museum in 1976.
The Hendersonville native has always had a flair for experimental craft, and in 1970 he discovered a “dry micro polychrome” technique of mixing pigment for painting. This technique allowed him to “suspend dry pigments of pure color in a glass sandwich”  allowing for optical mixing. In other words, rather than mix the pigments themselves and paint with one hue, he would leave the pure pigment physically unmixed and allow the pigments to mix in the viewer’s eye instead. According to the artist, the array of colors creates an “aurora borealis” effect unlike any traditional mixing technique seen before.
But his experimentation does not simply apply to technique. Upon completing his undergraduate degree, Justus began a self-imposed learning schedule studying art history and philosophy for at least an hour every day. This quest for knowledge not only led him to the dry micro polychrome technique, but pushed him to explore the boundaries of subject matter as well, often influenced by the history and philosophy he studied.
The non-traditionalist piece Copy demonstrates his philosophical approach to art. The acrylic work contains a collage of three iconic images — a famous painting, a highly-consumed product and a widely-viewed road sign — all of which are fairly recognizable. However, Justus puts his own spin on each, using green and pinkish tints for each image rather than their traditional yellower hues, making them look hyper-real and a little disconcerting. In this way, the artist draws on the pop art style of his early artist days seemingly to comment on the overuse of icons.
The beauty of art is that in some ways the creation of a piece occurs just as much in the viewer’s imagination as the creator’s hands. By this I mean that while an artist may have a particular agenda when creating a piece, the audience can interpret it in a different way personal to them and the piece can still be effective at communicating a message. While Justus may not have had this in mind when painting Copy, the first thing that came to mind when I saw it was Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in the Republic. Essentially, Plato describes a group of people who have been chained together in a cave looking at a blank wall. As they watch the wall, they see shadows of objects as they pass in front of a fire which is behind the people and they try to designate names to these shadows. These shadows are the closest the prisoners see to the reality of the objects, and Plato says that only a philosopher (through pursuit of knowledge) has been freed from the cave and can perceive that true reality of the objects rather than solely the shadows.
Similarly, although Justus paints likenesses of the Mona Lisa, a Hershey bar and a North Carolina road sign, they are merely representations, or shadows, of the actual items. The viewer of the painting sees the representations, but does not see the real objects. In this way, through the combination of pop art and ancient philosophy, Justus comments on the pervasive nature of icons, how their reputation (through excessive representation and viewing) has been distorted (he distorts them through use of different colors) thus straying from the actual nature of the objects. His literal addition of the word “copy” over each image demonstrates this idea, ironically showing through his distorted illustration of the icons that fame distorts the reality of objects — of all varieties. This could be a critique both of advertising and media (the traditional approach of pop art) or a comment on art itself, that although artists could skillfully create beautiful landscapes, interesting portraits, or even abstract forms that capture the essence of an object (in the same way a shadow of a chair shows the essential shape of the chair), the works cannot fully show reality. On a deeper note, he could also be saying that reality is merely subjective as each person views an object as differently as an artist paints it, so this piece may even pose the question of “what is reality?” Or, this could merely be my “reality” of Copy.
1. Parce, Mead. (1983, July 28). Mel Justus’ art form gains acceptance. The Times-News. pp. 5.
Artwork above: Mel Justus, Copy, 1971, Acrylic Painting, 49.63 x 43 inches. Gift of S. Tucker Cooke. Permanent Collection. 1982.13.24.